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New Zealand probes freight as mystery source of virus outbreak

New Zealand authorities are investigating whether the country’s first locally acquired cases of Covid-19 in more than 100 days were spread by refrigerated freight imported from overseas.

Officials are looking into the sudden emergence of Covid-19 in four family members in Auckland, the nation’s biggest city. One of the four, who tested positive this week, worked at a cold storage facility that is now being tested for traces of the virus.

“We do know from studies overseas that actually, the virus can survive in some refrigerated environments for quite some time,” said Ashley Bloomfield, director-general of health. “We are confident we didn’t have any community transmission for a very long period.”

The new outbreak led the government to impose a strict lockdown in Auckland on Wednesday.

Experts said a genetic analysis of the four new Covid-19 cases should help to explain whether they were infected by surface transmission from freight or via the much more common route of human-to-human transmission.

“Imported freight is a possibility that should be explored via testing,” said Nick Wilson, professor of public health at the University of Otago. “Nevertheless, I suspect it is far more likely to be a border-related event, such as a worker infected from someone in managed isolation and quarantine.”

New Zealand had been widely praised for closing its international borders and imposing a strict lockdown when the virus initially began spreading across the Pacific nation.

Unlike most other developed nations, the government of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has targeted elimination of the virus within its national borders rather than suppressing its spread.

Until this week, the success of the strategy had enabled the removal of most social distancing restrictions and the return of normal life, except for the continued closure of international borders and quarantine for returning residents.

During 102 days without any new Covid-19 cases acquired outside of quarantine facilities, the economy performed better than analysts expected. Authorities last week reported an official unemployment rate of 4 per cent in the three months to June.

But the fresh outbreak threatens to dent New Zealand’s nascent recovery, prompting the Reserve Bank of New Zealand to expand its quantitative easing programme to NZ$100bn (US$65bn), up from NZ$60bn, and signal its intention to deploy new monetary policy tools.

“Any significant change in the global and domestic economic outlook remains dependent on the containment of the virus, which is highly uncertain as evidenced today by the return to social restrictions in New Zealand,” said Adrian Orr, RBNZ governor, following a monetary policy meeting at which official interest rates were held at 0.25 per cent.

Ben Udy, economist at Capital Economics, warned that domestic economic activity would be significantly affected if social-distancing restrictions lasted longer than the anticipated three days.

The Covid-19 outbreak could also affect New Zealand’s upcoming election on September 19, with Ms Ardern deferring the planned dissolution of parliament on Wednesday by “at least a few days” to deal with the Auckland cases.

Additional reporting by Alice Woodhouse in Hong Kong

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