China hits back at ‘discriminatory’ COVID-19 travel restrictions as experts seek answers on new variants

  • China says travel restrictions imposed by some nations are ‘discriminatory’
  • South Korea has joined other nations in imposing stricter testing requirements for arrivals from China.
  • Scientists and public health officials are pushing for more resources for genetic sequencing of new COVID-19 variants.
Chinese state media have criticized countries’ decisions to mandate mandatory COVID-19 testing for travelers from China, who are now allowed to travel overseas for the first time since the pandemic began.
The state tabloid Global Times called the restrictions “unfounded” and “discriminatory” in an article late Thursday.
“The real intent is to sabotage China’s three-year COVID-19 control effort and attack the country’s system,” it said.

After China had kept its borders all but closed for three years and imposed a strict regime of lockdowns and relentless testing, on December 7 China abruptly reversed course on living with the virus. The number of cases reported by Beijing has risen sharply.

World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for more transparency from Chinese officials about the pandemic situation in the country.
He said some countries’ decision to impose stricter COVID-19 testing requirements on travelers from China is “understandable” given the lack of information from Chinese officials on the true extent of COVID-19 cases in the country.
“In order to carry out a comprehensive risk assessment of the Covid-19 situation on the ground in China, the WHO needs more detailed information,” said Dr. Tedros on Twitter.

“Without comprehensive information from China, it is understandable that countries around the world are acting in ways they believe can protect their people.”

How are the countries reacting with the travel rules for travelers from China?

South Korea was the latest country to impose stricter COVID-19 testing requirements for arrivals from China.
A negative PCR test is required of travelers from China both before and after arrival in South Korea.
The US, Italy, Japan, Taiwan, India and Malaysia have announced their own measures to avoid importing new variants from China.

The European Union’s health agency said on Thursday it considered the EU-wide introduction of mandatory COVID screenings for travelers from China to be “unjustified” at this time.

In Italy, the first European country to be hit by COVID-19 in early 2020, the government announced that initial results of its tighter screening of Chinese visitors have not detected any new coronavirus variants since Wednesday.
Those who have tested positive so far are carriers of “Omicron variants already present in Italy,” Ms Meloni said at her year-end press conference.
Ms Meloni said the screening is likely to be less effective than at the European level as only people arriving on direct flights from China would be tested, not people with stopovers.

Italian Health Minister Orazio Schillaci said she will push for the EU to introduce block-wide screening.

What do we know about new COVID-19 variants?

Epidemiologist Angela Webster said Australia may need to reintroduce routine PCR testing for COVID-19 to ensure no new variants of concern emerge.
“There have been strong calls for China to be much more transparent about what’s going on,” she told ABC TV.
“New variants could circulate quickly in China and therefore potentially spread to the rest of the world that we are not prepared for and haven’t been able to learn much about before it happens.”

She said it’s important to assess the impact of the virus during the holiday season.

Xu Wenbo, head of the Virus Control Institute at the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week hospitals across the country were collecting samples from patients and uploading the sequencing information to a new national database so authorities could monitor potential new strains in real time .
More than 130 Omicron sublineages have been newly discovered in China in the past three months, he told reporters.

The BA.5.2 and BF.7 remain the main Omicron strains, although other variants have also been identified that have spread to the US and Europe in recent months. These include XXB, BQ.1 and their sublines.

Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, told AFP that each new infection increases the likelihood of the virus mutating.
He said that over the past few months, “a soup” of more than 500 new Omicron subvariants have been identified, although it has often been difficult to tell where each first appeared.
“Any variant that is more transmissible than those previously prevalent – like BQ.1, B2.75.2, XBB, CH.1 or BF.7 – definitely poses a threat as it can create new waves,” he said.

“However, to our knowledge, none of these known variants appear to present any particular new risks for more severe symptoms, although this could happen with new variants in the near future.”

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