Any Restrictions on Chinese Travellers Should be ‘Rooted in Science’
COVID-19 cases have surged in China after the country relaxed various travel and social restrictions.

European countries that plan to introduce “precautionary measures” in light of the huge COVID-19 surge in China should ensure these are “rooted in science, proportionate and non-discriminatory”, the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Europe director has urged.

However, Dr Hans Kluge added that, based on information available to WHO, “the SARS-CoV-2 virus variants circulating in China are those that have already been seen in Europe and elsewhere”.

“We share the current view of the European Centre for Disease Control that the ongoing surge in China is not anticipated to significantly impact the COVID-19 epidemiological situation in the WHO European region at this time,” Kluge told a media briefing on Tuesday.

Dr Hans Kluge

Morocco is the only country so far to have banned flights from China in the wake of its COVID-19 surge, while some other countries including Australia, France, Japan, South Korea and the US, require a negative COVID-19 test for Chinese travellers.

But while Kluge acknowledged that China has been sharing virus sequencing information, he called for “detailed and regular information, especially on local epidemiology and variants, to better ascertain the evolving situation”.

“It is not unreasonable for countries to take precautionary measures to protect their populations, while we are awaiting more detailed information that is shared via publicly accessible databases,” added Kluge.

There is concern that China is hiding the extent of its COVID infections death toll, particularly as it recently narrowed the definition to only cover people with a positive COVID test who died of respiratory failure or pneumonia.

Yet there are widespread reports on social media and elsewhere about the effects of COVID on hospitals, funeral homes and graveyards. 

Airfinity, the independent health modelling body, predicts that China’s outbreak will peak on 13 January with about 3.7 million daily cases, with a second peak in rural areas on 3 March with 4,2 million daily cases, resulting in 1.7 million deaths in the country by April.

Airfinity modelling on China’s COVID-19 cases released in December 2022

“There is likely to be over one million cases a day in China and over 5,000 deaths a day. This is in stark contrast to the official data which is reporting 1,800 cases and only seven official deaths over the past week,” according to an Airfinity statement in late December.

The WHO has long advised countries to use excess mortality data to assess the impact of COVID-19.

Spread of XBB.1.5

Meanwhile, the new XBB.1.5 recombinant virus that is spreading rapidly across the US, is starting to expand in Europe.

Kluge said that in some European countries that have maintained strong genomic surveillance, such as Denmark, France, Germany and the United Kingdom the new XBB.1.5 recombinant virus was being picked up in “small, but growing numbers” and the WHO was assessing its potential impact.

“After three long pandemic years – with many countries grappling with overstretched health systems, shortages in essential medicines, and an exhausted health workforce – we cannot afford more pressures on our health systems,” Kluge concluded.

South Africa’s health minister Dr Joe Phaahla also confirmed on Tuesday that the first XBB.1.5 case had been picked in his country in late December. 

South Africa’s health minister, Dr Joe Phaahla.

However, Phaahla assured a media briefing on Tuesday that there was no indication that XBB.1.5 was “more severe” or caused more hospitalisation.

“Even in the People’s Republic of China, there is no indication that these various sub-variants are more severe in terms of illness, but it’s just the sheer numbers in a huge population, where people are now travelling freely, both in the country and also able to travel out of the China. We believe that the dominant variant of concern in China and in the world remains the Omicron,” said Phaahla, adding that South Africa would not impose any travel restrictions on Chinese travellers.

Image Credits: Flickr.

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