OTTAWA — A claim by Chinese health authorities that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 was introduced to a resident of Beijing through a piece of regular mail from Canada was dismissed Monday as being ludicrous and comical.
A Chinese state-controlled news outlet first reported that the Jan. 7 infection of a Beijing resident was the result of receiving a letter or parcel from Canada that passed through Hong Kong.
The Chinese report attributed that scenario to the deputy director of the Beijing Centre for Disease Control in a briefing, even though organizations such as the World Health Organization and Canada Post say the risk of contracting coronavirus from a piece of mail is low.
Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, a China expert at the University of Ottawa who spent more than three decades in the federal public service working on China issues, said Chinese officials need to familiarize themselves with the latest scientific material on the spread of COVID-19.
"Unlike the early days, scientists have clarified that it does not stay on surfaces. To suggest that it would be on mail that came over days from Canada is ludicrous," she said.
Canada Post says that the World Health Organization and the Public Health Agency of Canada have said the risks associated with handling mail, including international mail is low.
"According to the PHAC, there is no known risk of coronaviruses entering Canada on parcels or packages. In general, because of poor survivability of coronaviruses on surfaces, there is a low risk of spread from products or packaging shipped over a period of days or weeks," says a statement by Canada Post.
"Currently, there is no evidence of COVID-19 being transmitted by imported goods or packages."
McCuaig-Johnston said the Chinese allegation shows that its leadership is still angry at Canada after its long-running dispute over the arrest of high-tech executive Meng Wanzhou in 2018, an extradition case that was dropped last year, which allowed her to return to China.
Meng was arrested in Vancouver in December 2018 on an American extradition warrant for allegedly violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. Nine days later, China arrested two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and accused them of being spies – allegations Canada and dozens of Western allies dismissed as baseless retaliation.
The matter plunged Canada-China relations to an all-time low. The U.S. dropped its extradition case against Meng in September, and she was allowed to go free and return to China. Kovrig and Spavor were repatriated to Canada simultaneously.
It is not clear whether Canada-China relations have begun any kind of meaningful rebound since that major issue between them was resolved.
McCuaig-Johnston said Chinese President Xi Jinping was personally angered by Meng's arrest and is likely choosing to target Canada whenever it suits him. She said that could explain this latest innuendo around the Canadian postal system.
"Canada is the country that is targeted, suggesting that we're still in Beijing's crosshairs," she said.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos appeared not to be aware of the controversy when asked about it at a press conference Monday.
He said that while he may have his own opinion of why China was making that claim, he deferred to experts on how COVID-19 can be spread.
"We'll check with officials and our partners around the world," Duclos said.
"I think this is something not only new, but intriguing and certainly not in accordance with what we have done both internationally and domestically."
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole called the Chinese claim "comical" and said it was a reminder that news reports emanating from China can't be trusted.
O'Toole reiterated his party's criticism of the government for not conducting a comprehensive national security review of the proposed purchase of a lithium mining development company by a Chinese firm. O'Toole said Canada needs to protect its access to lithium because it is a key ingredient in the batteries for electric vehicles.
"Canada must safeguard our supply and access to critical minerals like lithium to protect our economy and our competitive advantage," said O'Toole.
A statement from Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada said all potential acquisitions involving critical minerals are subject to a review by the Canadian security and intelligence community before deciding whether a full-scale national security review is warranted.
The department said it was bound by commercial confidentiality and could not comment on the current case. But in general, it said it can assess individual cases based on the "nature of the mineral deposits" and whether a company has full-scale operations in Canada or is "principally domiciled here for regulatory or other reasons with few local staff or assets."
The company is question operates a mine that is under exploration in Argentina and is registered in Toronto.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 17, 2022.
Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press