Are COVID travel curbs on China making the world safer?


With China reversing its strict zero-COVID lockdown insurance policies, infections have been surging throughout the nation. Hospitals are packed, and crematoriums are struggling to manage as our bodies are available.

In response, dozens of countries — from the United States and Europe to Asia and Africa — have instituted a spread of restrictions focused at incoming travellers from China. Many, just like the US, a number of European nations, India, Japan, South Korea, and Ghana require that travellers from China present adverse COVID-19 exams earlier than boarding flights. Some are insisting that these passengers take new exams on touchdown too, and bear quarantine if these present optimistic.

Japan has additionally restricted the variety of incoming flights from China. South Korea, in the meantime, ceased issuing vacationer visas to Chinese guests in early January. And Morocco has briefly banned all entry for guests from China, no matter their nationality.

In retaliation, China had stopped issuing short-term visas to South Koreans and Japanese guests, sparking visions of a return to the chaotic travel panorama of 2020 and 2021, when particular person nations imposed patchwork restrictions on one another with little world coordination. On January 29, China mentioned it could resume visas for Japanese residents.

The US, European Union nations, and plenty of others have justified their measures as aimed toward defending their residents. Yet in an interview with Britain’s LBC radio, United Kingdom Transport Secretary Mark Harper just lately acknowledged one other potential rationale for the insurance policies: incentivising Beijing to be extra clear about knowledge associated to the COVID surge by elevating the implications of opacity.

So what does the science say? Will the restrictions imposed on Chinese travellers make the world safer?

The brief reply: There is little proof that the curbs will considerably affect both COVID-19 case numbers in different international locations or have an effect on the unfold of recent variants, scientists instructed Al Jazeera. But the insurance policies would possibly simply be working to strain China to change into extra clear.

Patients Receive Intravenous Drips In An Emergency Ward In Beijing, China.
Patients obtain intravenous drips in an emergency ward in Beijing, China, on January 19, 2023. A surge in COVID instances in China since December has strained the nation’s medical infrastructure [Andy Wong/AP Photo]

Will China’s lethal surge unfold?

Since it relaxed strict restrictions in December following enormous protests, China has struggled in opposition to the fast unfold of the virus. Between December eight and January 12, the nation’s hospitals reported nearly 60,000 deaths associated to COVID.

A current projection by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that the reversal of zero-COVID rules might contribute to nearly 300,000 deaths by April, and about 1,000,000 by the top of the yr.

Other governments have mentioned they’re frightened about travellers from China bringing the virus with them. Italy, as an example, launched its new rules after two planes from China landed with nearly half the passengers on board testing optimistic for COVID-19. And the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency mentioned that the variety of virus-carrying guests from China to South Korea rose exponentially from simply 19 in November to 349 in December.

Yet quite a few meta-analyses — comparisons of a number of several types of research — have proven that such measures are simplest early on in an outbreak after they can decelerate the unfold of the virus.

Once an an infection has unfold extensively the world over, travel curbs solely work alongside home insurance policies equivalent to strict masks mandates, social distancing and lockdowns. Few individuals immediately have the endurance or urge for food for such home rules any extra, Summer Marion, a lecturer and researcher on world research and well being insurance policies at Massachusetts-based Bentley University, instructed Al Jazeera.

Most international locations focusing on guests from China have relaxed masks mandates and different restrictions on their very own populations, even whereas grappling with important caseloads. The US, as an example, is recording greater than 40,000 new instances a day on common.

The optics of showing aware of the disaster in China, within the eyes of their very own residents, may be an element influencing measures that governments have taken, mentioned Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist and director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.

Science possible will not be, based on specialists.

“Even if every single traveller coming in from China were to be positive,” that will immediately represent solely a small fraction of the whole COVID-19 caseload within the US, mentioned Karen Anne Grépin, affiliate professor on the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health.

South Korea, as an example, reported 31,106 new instances between January 14 and 21 — nearly 100 occasions the month-to-month determine of 349 Chinese COVID-positive travellers that spooked it into imposing restrictions.

But the US CDC, in its clarification of its travel restrictions, cited one other fear: the potential emergence of “novel variants”.

Passengers Arriving From China Pass By A Covid-19 Testing Centre At The Incheon International Airport In Incheon, South Korea.
Passengers arriving from China go by a COVID testing centre at Incheon International Airport in South Korea, on January 10, 2023 [Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo]

Can curbs cease a brand new variant?

So far, there isn’t any proof that the surge in instances in China is pushed by any new variant of the virus.

On January 4, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that knowledge from China means that greater than 97 % of all new instances have been from two well-known subvariants of the Omicron coronavirus pressure.

The EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control additionally just lately concluded that “the variants circulating in China are already circulating” within the bloc’s nations and “are not challenging for the immune response” of their residents.

To make certain, that doesn’t imply that new variants can’t mutate out of present ones, as infections stay excessive in China. The US CDC referred to that danger in its announcement of travel restrictions.

“If we believe what public health officials are telling us”, the travel curbs are aimed toward stopping “the importation of potentially new variants that may yet evolve in China — but have not yet been established”, Grépin instructed Al Jazeera.

According to her, that reasoning rings hole. China will not be the one nation that has seen spikes in instances just lately — an infection numbers surged in Japan and South Korea final yr — however has been the one one to be slapped with travel measures. There is little proof to counsel that China has a considerably increased danger of housing new variants.

Grépin identified that the brand new variant spreading like wildfire throughout the US in the intervening time — and sure from the US to different international locations — is the Omicron subvariant US XBB.1.5, which was first detected in New York City.

In late 2021, when Omicron itself was new, Grépin had argued in an opinion piece for the Washington Post that travel restrictions imposed by the West on South Africa — the place it was first discovered — and different African nations could be ineffective. By the top of December 2021, Omicron had certainly change into the dominant variant within the US, regardless of stricter border management.

New variants immediately are additionally much less of a cause to fret than they have been early within the pandemic, mentioned Peter Chin-Hong, a professor on the University of California San Francisco Health Division of Infectious Diseases.

“You can give me a Dr Doomsday variant,” mentioned Chin-Hong, however “it wouldn’t have the same consequence as early on in the pandemic.” That’s as a result of “the population is in a very different place, with lots of vaccines, boosting, and natural infection waves”, he mentioned to Al Jazeera.

Medicines equivalent to Paxlovid and Remdesivir, extensively obtainable immediately, assist too. They are largely efficient in serving to sidestep the worst of problems from new viral variants as a result of they aim enzymes which are essential for viral replication, regardless of the variant.

Experiences with previous public well being crises like Ebola additionally present that, along with coping with new and localised outbreaks, travel restrictions work finest in opposition to illnesses with extreme, fast onset of signs, Chin-Hong mentioned.

COVID-19, with its low an infection price, lengthy latency — signs can present a number of days after an individual is contaminated — and huge world unfold doesn’t meet these circumstances. A passenger with a adverse take a look at might nonetheless be carrying the virus.

Yet there’s another excuse why international locations may be imposing robust rules for travellers from China, mentioned specialists.

German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach, Next To Health Minister Of North Rhine-Westphalia Karl-Josef Laumann And Health Minister Of Lower Saxony Daniela Behrens, Holds A News Conference To Comment About Imposing Covid-19 Restrictions On Travellers Coming From China And About Hospital Reform Following A Federal-State Meeting, In Berlin, Germany, January 5, 2023. Reuters/Annegret Hilse
German well being minister Karl Lauterbach, centre, talking on the travel restrictions imposed on guests from China, in Berlin, Germany, January 5, 2023 [Annegret Hilse/Reuters]

Will China open up on knowledge?

Beijing, on its half, has described the restrictions as “discriminatory”. But different governments and specialists have argued that China has solely itself guilty.

China was reportedly supplied vaccine doses and different assist by the US. But it has insisted that its vaccine and medical provides have been sufficient and that “the COVID situation is under control”.

Beijing’s place lacks credibility, Osterholm of the University of Minnesota instructed Al Jazeera.

China has, in lots of respects, saved the world at the hours of darkness about its COVID-19 knowledge. It has usually been accused of passing off COVID deaths as mortality from underlying circumstances solely exacerbated by the virus. Even its current estimates of a pointy rise in deaths in December and January are possible far decrease than the fact, many specialists fear.

“I’m getting more intelligence from China right now, by far, from news reporters on the ground, or from private sector companies [than from the government],” mentioned Osterholm. In both case, the image is one in all an under-vaccinated inhabitants poleaxed by an underprepared reversal of zero-COVID insurance policies, with insufficient stockpiles of acceptable antiviral medicines.

So even when the present testing and travel restrictions being positioned on China have little likelihood of affecting outbreaks in different international locations, there’s nonetheless one thing that governments world wide might acquire by way of these measures. “The only thing you have left is encouraging the Chinese authorities to share more data and do more sequencing of the virus,” says Chin-Hong.

The US CDC hinted as a lot in its unique announcement of the brand new travel curbs, highlighting “the lack of adequate and transparent epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data being reported” by China. The WHO has additionally cited China’s lack of knowledge transparency to name travel restrictions “understandable”.

The strain may be yielding some outcomes.

Since late December, China has dramatically stepped up its contributions of genomic knowledge to the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID) sequencing database, permitting scientists from elsewhere to raised scrutinise the character of infections in China. It had turned in solely 52 sequences between December 1 and 24 however then submitted 540 over the subsequent six days. And the sample continued by way of January, based on GISAID: China submitted 2,641 sequences over the previous 4 weeks.

Many specialists, like Marion of Bentley University, warning in opposition to attributing the measures centered on travellers from China to a single motivation. Still, transparency appears a key incentive — making these initiatives examples not of data-driven coverage, however of insurance policies driving a push to gather knowledge.

Nevertheless, two issues are clear. First, mentioned Osterholm, “If you can’t control it in the country from which people are leaving, you’re not going to control it at your border either.” And second, a extra clear China would solely bode higher for the world’s response to COVID-19.