As the origin of Covid-19 continues to perplex investigators around the world, one state media outlet in China has suggested it may have arrived in Wuhan province via imported frozen food from countries, including Australia.
An article in the Global Times over the weekend argued that Western countries had attempted to "shift the narrative from their own shortcomings" by accusing Wuhan as being "where the coronavirus began".
"As the mounting sporadic outbreaks in China were found to be related to imported cold-chain products, with other parts of the world, including Europe and the American continent, reportedly discovering signs of the coronavirus earlier than Wuhan, it begs a new hypothesis – did the early outbreak in Wuhan originate from imported frozen food?" the publication wrote.
The first cases of Covid-19 were linked to a controversial "wet market", with Chinese experts saying in January that the virus had likely jumped from wild animals to humans.
In April, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus, sparking a furious reaction from China, which has since imposed a series of punishing tariffs on Australian trade goods as relations deteriorate.
Facing international criticism over its handling of the initial outbreak, China has pushed back, saying that the virus may have started overseas and arrived on frozen food packaging.
Chinese officials have previously claimed to have detected coronavirus on frozen products including chicken wings from Brazil, squid from Russia, shrimp from Ecuador, pork from Germany and salmon from Norway.
In New Zealand, investigators tried to determine whether a mystery Covid-19 outbreak in August could have been freighted into the country in frozen food or even remain frozen in a cold storage facility for weeks. One of the people who tested positive for the virus was an employee at an Americold coolstore in Mt Wellington.
The World Health Organisation has previously said there is no evidence of the virus being transmitted this way, but the Chinese government have now doubled down on the theory.
"More and more evidence suggests that the frozen seafood or meat products probably spread the virus from countries with the epidemic into our country," Chinese epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said in a recent interview posted on government website, The New York Times reported.
The Global Times article admits that there is as yet no evidence, but that the theory "cannot be ruled out". Its reporters spoke to a number of former merchants from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, with one claiming "actually the frozen products in China are clean, but I don't know about those from abroad".
The paper said the Wuhan market used to sell "imported cold-chain seafood, such as king crab and arctic shellfish, as well as meat products from Brazil and Germany".
"The city also imported Australian steak, Chilean cherries and Ecuadorean seafood before 2019, according to the information from the website of the city's commerce bureau," the Global Times wrote.
"Statements published by the Hubei Provincial Commerce Department show in 2018 and 2019, foreign trade enterprises have imported meat from Canada, Brazil and Spain."
The article said customs data showed there had been a 174 per cent increase in frozen product imports into Hubei province in 2019 compared with the previous year.
"The idea never crossed our minds before, but now it seems plausible that the virus may have been imported to Wuhan via imported cold-chain products," Wuhan University disease researcher Yang Zhanqiu told the Global Times.
One anonymous Beijing-backed expert told the paper that "theoretically, it is possible that coronavirus from other countries caused the early outbreak in Wuhan, but we lack evidence".
"We cannot conclude so far if the coronavirus existed in other countries before the early cases showed in Wuhan," he said.
The state-run People's Daily newspaper also published an article on November 25 headlined "Covid-19 did not start in central China's Wuhan but may come through imported frozen food and packaging: experts".