Infections have surged across the country after China withdrew its strict zero-virus lockdown policy. Hospitals are overcrowded and crematoria are struggling to get the bodies in.
In response, dozens of countries, from the United States and Europe to Asia and Africa, have imposed various restrictions on arrivals from China. Many countries, such as South Korea and Ghana, require travelers from China to demonstrate a negative COVID-19 test before boarding a flight. Some have argued that these passengers should also undergo new tests upon landing and quarantine if they test positive.
Japan has also restricted the number of incoming flights from China. Meanwhile, South Korea stopped issuing tourist visas to Chinese tourists in early January. And Morocco has temporarily banned entry of all Chinese visitors, regardless of nationality.
In retaliation, China has stopped issuing short-term visas to Korean and Japanese visitors, sparking visions of a return to the chaotic travel environment of 2020 and 2021. At the time, countries imposed a patchwork of restrictions on each other, with little global coordination. On January 29, China announced that it would resume visas for Japanese nationals.
The United States, European Union countries, and many other countries have justified measures aimed at protecting their citizens. But in an interview with his LBC radio in the UK, UK Transport Secretary Mark He Harper recently acknowledged another potential rationale for the policy.
So what does science say? Will restrictions imposed on Chinese travelers make the world safer?
Short answer: Scientists told Al Jazeera there was little evidence that the restrictions would have a significant impact on the number of COVID-19 cases in other countries or affect the spread of new variants. It may just be putting pressure on the public to be more transparent.
Will China’s deadly surge spread?
China has struggled with the rapid spread of the virus since it relaxed strict restrictions in December following mass protests. Between December 8th and her January 12th, hospitals in the country reported about 60,000 deaths related to her COVID.
Recent projections by the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that a reversal of the zero COVID rule could kill about 300,000 people by April and about 1 million by the end of the year. I’m here.
Other governments have said they are worried about travelers from China bringing the virus. Italy, for example, introduced new rules after two of his planes from China landed and nearly half of the passengers tested positive for his COVID-19. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also said the number of visitors carrying the virus from China to South Korea had risen exponentially from just 19 in November to 349 in December. said.
However, numerous meta-analyses (comparing several different types of studies) show that such measures are most effective early in an outbreak, where they can slow the spread of the virus.
As the infection spreads around the world, travel restrictions will only work in line with domestic policies such as strict mask mandates, social distancing and lockdowns. Marion Summer, a lecturer and researcher in global studies and health policy at Bentley University, Massachusetts, told Al Jazeera that today there is no tolerance or desire for such domestic rules. Very few people have
Most countries targeting visitors from China have eased mask mandates and other restrictions for their own populations despite grappling with significant case numbers. More than 40,000 new infections are recorded on average daily.
Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, said the perception that, in the eyes of his own people, he was responding to the crisis in China was a factor influencing the government’s response. said it might become .
Science probably doesn’t, according to experts.
Karen Ann Grepin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, said even if “everyone arriving from China had tested positive”, it would still be a fraction of the total number of COVID-19 cases in the US today. . public health.
For example, South Korea reported 31,106 new cases between 14 and 21 January. This is almost 100 times the monthly figure of 349 Chinese COVID-positive travelers that threatened South Korea to impose restrictions.
But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention raised another concern in explaining the travel restrictions. That is the possibility of the emergence of “new subspecies”.
Can curbs stop new variants?
So far, there is no evidence that the surge in cases in China is caused by a new variant of the virus.
On January 4, the World Health Organization (WHO) said data from China suggested that more than 97% of all new cases were due to two well-known variants of the Omicron coronavirus strain. reported that there is
The EU’s European Center for Disease Prevention and Control also recently concluded that “the variant circulating in China is already circulating in bloc countries” and “has not affected the immune response” of its citizens. rice field.
It certainly doesn’t mean that new variants can’t mutate from existing variants, as infection rates are still high in China. The US CDC mentioned that risk in its travel restrictions announcement.
“If public health officials are to be believed,” the travel restrictions are aimed at deterring “the importation of potentially new subspecies that may still be evolving in China but not yet established.” Yes, Grepin told Al Jazeera.
According to her, that reasoning sounds hollow. China isn’t the only country to see a recent surge in cases (Japan and South Korea saw spikes in cases last year), but it’s the only country that has taken travel measures. There is little evidence to suggest that China is at significantly higher risk of containing the new variant.
Grépin points out that the new variant currently spreading like wildfire across the United States (presumably from the United States to other countries) is the Omicron subvariant US XBB.1.5, first detected in New York City. Did.
In late 2021, when Omicron itself was new, Grepin argued in an opinion piece for The Washington Post that the travel restrictions Western countries imposed on South Africa, where Omicron was first discovered, and other African countries were ineffective. By the end of December 2021, Omicron had indeed become the dominant variant in the United States, despite tightened border controls.
Today’s new strains are less of a concern than they were in the early days of the pandemic, said Peter Chinhong, a professor in the Department of Infectious Diseases at the University of California, San Francisco.
“Give me a variant of Dr. Doomsday,” Chinhong said, “but it didn’t have the same result as earlier in the pandemic.” “There are waves of natural infections,” he told Al Jazeera.
Drugs such as paxlobid and remdesivir, which are widely available today, also help. They are highly effective in avoiding the worst complications from new viral variants because they target enzymes that are important for viral replication, regardless of variant.
Experience with past public health crises like Ebola shows that, in addition to addressing new localized outbreaks, travel restrictions are most effective against illnesses with severe, rapidly developing symptoms. has been shown to be, said Chin-Hong.
COVID-19 has a low infection rate, a long incubation period (symptoms can appear days after a person is infected), and global spread does not meet these criteria. Passengers who test negative may still be carrying the virus.
But there are other reasons countries may be imposing stricter rules on travelers from China, experts say.
Will China open up its data?
Beijing describes the restrictions as “discriminatory.” But other governments and experts say China is to blame on its own.
China was reportedly provided with vaccines and other assistance from the United States. But it claims that vaccines and medicines are sufficient and that “the COVID situation is under control.”
Osterholm of the University of Minnesota told Al Jazeera that Beijing’s position lacked credibility.
China has, in many ways, kept the world in the dark about COVID-19 data. Deaths from COVID are often accused of disguising them as deaths from underlying conditions that are only exacerbated by the virus. Many experts fear that even recent estimates of sharp increases in death tolls in December and January are likely to be far below reality.
“I now have much more information from China, from local news reporters and private companies. [than from the government]’ said Osterholm. In both cases, he is one of the unvaccinated population polarized by the reversal of the ill-prepared zero COVID policy, with insufficient stockpiles of adequate antiviral drugs.
So even if the tests and travel restrictions currently in place in China are unlikely to affect outbreaks in other countries, there is still something governments around the world can gain through these measures. “The only thing you have left is to encourage Chinese authorities to share more data and sequence the virus,” Chin-Hong said.
The US CDC, in its initial announcement of the new travel restrictions, similarly alluded, highlighting the “lack of adequate and transparent epidemiological and viral genome sequence data” reported by China. called travel restrictions “understandable,” citing a lack of data transparency.
The pressure may have produced some results.
Since late December, China has dramatically increased its contribution of genomic data to the Global Initiative for Avian Influenza Data Sharing (GISAID) sequence database, allowing scientists elsewhere to more closely scrutinize the nature of the outbreak in China. I made it possible. Only 52 sequences were submitted between December 1st and 24th, but 540 sequences were submitted in the next 6 days. This pattern continued until January, according to GISAID. China has submitted 2,641 sequences in the past four weeks.
Many experts, such as Marion of Bentley University, have cautioned against attributing measures focused on travelers from China to a single motive. It seems that. These initiatives are examples of policies that encourage data collection, rather than data-driven policies.
However, two things are clear. First, Osterholm said: And second, greater transparency in China would bode better for the global response to COVID-19.