Coronavirus: US will require Covid-19 testing for travellers from China

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  • Government cited surge in infections and a lack of transparent information about the virus
  • Travellers to the US from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau will be required to take a Covid-19 test no more than two days before travel and provide a negative test before boarding their flight
Associated Press |
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A traveller wearing a face mask walks by a poster at the Beijing Capital International Airport. Moves by the US, Japan and others to mandate Covid-19 tests for passengers arriving from China reflect global concern that new variants could emerge in its ongoing explosive outbreak — and the government may not inform the rest of the world quickly enough. Photo: AP

The US announced new Covid-19 testing requirements on Wednesday for all travellers from China, joining other nations imposing restrictions because of a surge of infections.

The increase in cases across China follows the rollback of the nation’s strict antivirus controls. China’s zero-Covid policies had kept the country’s infection rate low but fuelled public frustration and crushed economic growth.

The new US requirements, which start January 5, apply to travellers regardless of their nationality and vaccination status.

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In a statement explaining the testing, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cited the surge in infections and what it said was a lack of adequate and transparent information from China, including genomic sequencing on the viral strains circulating in the country.

“These data are critical to monitor the case surge effectively and decrease the chance for entry of a novel variant of concern,” the CDC said.

Some scientists are worried the Covid-19 surge in China could unleash a new coronavirus variant on the world that may or may not be similar to the ones circulating now. That’s because every infection is another chance for the virus to mutate.

Passengers walk through a departure terminal of the international airport in Beijing on December 29, 2022. Photo: AFP

“What we want to avoid is having a variant enter into the US and spread like we saw with delta or omicron,” said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, in the US state of Minnesota.

But the CDC’s action may be less about stopping a new variant from crossing US borders and more about increasing pressure on China to share more information, said Dr David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, adding he hopes the restrictions “aren’t kept in place longer than they need to be.”

“I don’t think it’s going to have a major impact in slowing the spread of Covid-19,” Dowdy said. “We have a whole lot of transmission of Covid-19 here within our borders already.”

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Dr Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University, agreed China isn’t sharing enough genomic sequencing information. But he also said the US has become a little complacent about sequencing and needs to redouble its own efforts. The CDC also announced the expansion of an early warning programme that tests volunteers at select airports for new and rare variants of the coronavirus. That programme will expand to airports in Seattle and Los Angeles.

Under the new US rules, travellers to the US from China, Hong Kong and Macau, will be required to take a Covid-19 test no more than two days before travel and provide a negative test before boarding their flight. The testing applies to anyone 2 years and older, including US citizens.

It will apply to people travelling from China via a third country and to people connecting through the US as they go on to other destinations. Anyone testing positive more than 10 days before the flight can provide documentation showing they’ve recovered from Covid-19 instead of a negative test result.

China announced this week that incoming travellers would no longer have to quarantine from January 8, the latest major reversal of strict restrictions that have kept the country largely closed off to the world since the start of the pandemic. Photo: AFP

It will be up to the airlines to confirm negative tests and documentation of recovery before passengers board.

Other countries have taken similar steps in an effort to keep infections from spreading beyond China’s borders. Japan will require a negative Covid-19 test upon arrival for travellers from China, and Malaysia announced new tracking and surveillance measures. India, Italy, South Korea and Taiwan are requiring virus tests for visitors from China.

Lunar New Year, which begins January 22, is usually China’s busiest travel season, and China announced Tuesday it will resume issuing passports for tourism for the first time since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

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“We look forward to welcoming Chinese travellers back to the United States,” US Travel Association President and CEO Geoff Freeman said in a statement. He called the US approach to testing inbound travellers “reasonable and appreciated.”

The US action is a return to testing requirements for some international travellers. The Biden administration lifted the last of such mandates in June. At that time, the CDC continued to recommend that people boarding flights to the US get tested close to departure time and not travel if they are sick.

A family watches a China Airlines plane land at Los Angeles International Airport in May 2020. Photo: AFP

“We’ve done this before. We can do it again,” Dowdy said.

Early in the pandemic, the US barred entry to foreigners travelling from China, weeks after the virus first emerged there three years ago, and dozens of other countries were added to the list. The country started lifting travel bans late last year, but required travellers to the US to be vaccinated and tested.

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