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The Biden administration, fearing that a surge in coronavirus infections in Beijing could spawn a new and more dangerous variant, announced on Wednesday that it would require travelers from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, to present negative tests for Covid-19. before entering the United States. countries.
The requirement will take effect Jan. 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which made the announcement. Agency officials say they are deeply concerned about China’s lack of transparency about its outbreak — and, in particular, its inability to track and sort out variants and sub-variants that are circulating within its borders.
CDC officials said the testing requirement would apply to air travelers regardless of their nationality and vaccination status. It will also apply to travelers coming from China who enter the United States through a third country or who connect through the United States to other destinations. Italy and Japan have already imposed similar restrictions, and India has imposed negative Covid-19 test reports and random screening at airports for passengers arriving from China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand.
But as they did when President Donald J. Trump imposed travel restrictions due to the pandemic, some experts questioned whether the testing requirement would do any work — especially given the rise in cases in some parts of the United States. In the Northeast, scientists say the spread of the virus is being fueled by a sub-variant of OmicronXBB, which appears to be spreading faster than those associated with the dominant variant in Beijing.
“I understand politically why it has to be done, but the bottom line is that we’re really slowing down transmission is a false sense of security,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
The Covid outbreak in China has worsened in recent days, local authorities said hundreds of thousands of infections per day. Video clips obtained by The New York Times show sick patients crowded the corridors of the hospital. But the situation is difficult to track in real time because China does not publish reliable data on Covid.
The CDC also announced Wednesday that it is expanding the voluntary genomic surveillance program, which looks for new variants in anonymous swabs taken from international travelers at major U.S. airports, to include Los Angeles and Seattle.
Understand the situation in China
The Communist Party rejected the restrictive “zero Covid” policy, sparking mass protests that were a rare challenge to the Communist leadership.
Some experts worried that instead of promoting transparency on China’s part, the policy could make the Chinese even more intransigent.
“The most important strategy right now is that we need to improve our political and diplomatic communication with China,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University. He said he fears the new policy of the Biden administration will work “in the opposite direction.”
But Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University’s School of Public Health, said the administration doesn’t have much of a choice.
“I think they are rightly trying to put some pressure on China to live up to its international responsibilities,” she said, adding that the “compact of agreement” that calls for countries to share pandemic data “will only work if countries they call bad behavior.’
After three years of insisting on a “zero Covid” policy, China did sharp turn in early December and reversed that policy after mass protests against blockades that threatened the ruling Communist Party. Since then, there has been a dramatic spike in the number of cases in Beijing.
A major concern among public health officials is that the Chinese population has weak natural immunity, allowing the virus to spread quickly. The rapid spread, in turn, creates new opportunities for the virus to evolve, creating the risk that new variants will emerge and spread to other parts of the world.
Scientists say that doesn’t necessarily mean a more dangerous variant will emerge in China soon. Over the past year, people in the United States have been infected by waves of Omicron sub-variants. But because people in China are essentially isolated from these versions of the virus, scientists said any of them could take off there.
“In a sense, whatever emerges first is likely to be dominant there,” said James Wood, an infectious disease expert at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
Some past variants are thought to have arisen when the virus mutated during prolonged infections in people with compromised immune systems, suggesting that the rate of transmission at a site may not alone determine the likelihood of developing new ones. options.
“While there’s an argument that with more people who are infected, there may be more opportunities to mutate and develop a new variant,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease modeler at Columbia University, “we don’t yet know whether the new variants develop primarily during person-to-person transmission or within people who have experienced prolonged infections.
Scientists in Hong Kong have reported that a subvariant of Omicron known as BF.7 was responsible for the outbreak in Beijing. This variant is a subline of the BA.5, which until recently was dominant in the United States. But the BF.7, despite being present in the United States for months, has shown no signs of competing with other Omicron releases in the country.
The CDC estimated that BF.7 accounted for 4 percent of cases in late December and that it has become less common since November. Other subvariants of Omicron that scientists believe may be more adept at evading existing immune responses, including XBB, are now more common in the United States.
In the United States, the CDC estimated last week that the XBB subtype had risen to nearly a fifth of cases in the country, up from just 3 percent of cases a month earlier.
XBB is spreading particularly quickly in the northeastern United States, scientists said, accounting for more than half of new infections there. And it appears to have an advantage over the BQ.1 Omicron subvariants that have been dominant in the United States recently, scientists said.
Scientists are in the early stages of studying the XBB subvariant. They said that an even newer version of this sub-variant, known as XBB.1.5, has surfaced. Preliminary studies suggest that the newer version is adept at evading existing immune responses and binding to human cells.
Especially in a few months, once more people in China have some degree of immunity from previous infections and the virus is under more pressure to evolve there, it will be important to scan for new variants, the scientists said.
“It would be nice if China could provide some summary of what options it sees,” said Dr Wood of the University of New South Wales. “Otherwise, it ends up being found in genomic surveillance in Europe or the US or wherever people travel.”
Still, he said, for now China does not pose an excessive risk of a new variant being born.
“We’ve had a huge number of infections internationally,” he said. “These are many more infections than have occurred in China alone.”
Emily Antes and Karan Deep Singh contributed reporting.
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