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Restrictions on travelers from China mount as covid numbers there surge

A worker stands amid body bags at a funeral home Wednesday as a coronavirus outbreak continues in Shanghai. (Staff/Reuters)
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Nearly a dozen countries have imposed entry restrictions on travelers from China as it battles a surge in coronavirus infections that has raised alarm about the emergence of new variants and concerns about Beijing’s disclosure of information on the outbreak.

On Wednesday, Japan said it would require negative coronavirus tests for all arrivals from China starting Sunday, joining the ranks of the United States, France, Spain, Italy, India, Israel, Australia, Canada and others in limiting visitors traveling from China.

European Union officials met Wednesday to discuss a coordinated response. The E.U. presidency released a statement urging member states to require coronavirus testing within 48 hours of departure for those flying from China and to recommend masking on flights to and from China.

Starting Thursday, South Korea will require all travelers from China to have a negative coronavirus test to board flights to the country. All arrivals from China must also undergo a PCR test within the first day of their arrival.

“We must keep vigilant to prevent China’s spread of the coronavirus from affecting Korea,” Cho Kyoo-hong, South Korea’s health and welfare minister, said Wednesday at a government briefing.

Using modeling based on regional Chinese data, the Britain-based health data firm Airfinity estimated that more than 5,000 people could be dying each day. (Video: Reuters)

How deadly will China’s covid surge get? Answers to that and more

Morocco on Saturday went so far as to ban all arrivals from China, regardless of nationality, “to avoid a new wave of contaminations in Morocco and all its consequences.”

China has repeatedly described such measures as having no scientific basis. At a regular news briefing Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning criticized the measure and called on countries not to use pandemic prevention as an excuse to engage in “political manipulation.” On Tuesday, she warned that her country would take “corresponding measures.”

China also requires a negative coronavirus test for any arrivals, but will soon scrap a mandatory week-long quarantine.

At a news briefing Wednesday, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was “understandable that some countries are taking steps that they believe will protect their own citizens,” given the lack of comprehensive data on the outbreak.

The global health body has been critical of travel bans during the pandemic, arguing that they are counterproductive. But WHO officials said Wednesday that most of the requirements concern testing, rather than blanket bans, and were prompted by a lack of information from China.

“You can remember over the last three years, China’s had very strict testing requirements for entering China,” said Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies chief. “The reality for China now is that many countries have felt that they don’t have enough information to base their risk assessment [on], so they are taking a precautionary approach.”

In its statement Wednesday, the E.U. presidency urged random coronavirus tests for those flying from China to E.U. member states, in part to develop clearer information about the epidemiologic situation. It also urgent sequencing to screen for emergent variants.

After suddenly lifting its strict “zero covid” measures in December, China has been hit by a wave of coronavirus cases that has overwhelmed hospitals and undercut official assurances that the government has the outbreak under control.

China is preparing to open its borders next week for the first time since the pandemic began. Many Chinese travelers are also preparing to travel abroad for the Lunar New Year holiday, which begins Jan. 22, with international flight bookings on the Chinese travel website Ctrip up 260 percent for the holiday compared with last year.

After years with little covid, videos show China is now getting hit hard

Countries are already struggling to deal with positive cases from China. On Wednesday, South Korean authorities were on the hunt for a Chinese national who tested positive upon arrival at Incheon International Airport near Seoul and apparently escaped while waiting for admission to a quarantine facility. The traveler could face a penalty of up to a year in prison or a fine of up to 10 million won (about $7,850) if convicted.

WHO leaders held a meeting with Chinese officials Tuesday as advisers and health experts called on the country to provide more data on the outbreak. According to a statement from the WHO, sequencing data provided by China shows that cases there are largely offshoots of the omicron variant and that no new variant has been detected.

Speaking Wednesday, WHO officials said that while they had received more data from China in recent days, they still did not have enough to fully understand the outbreak. In particular, they emphasized that a narrow official definition that links death from covid-19 to respiratory failure may also downplay the spread of the virus.

“We believe that the current numbers being released from China underrepresent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, in terms of ICU admissions and particularly in terms of deaths,” Ryan said.

The Chinese leadership, which faced historic protests against its zero-covid policies late last year, now faces mounting criticism over its abrupt shift, which has led to severe drug shortages and broad skepticism about the official death toll. Still, Chinese officials continue to insist that the government’s approach is correct.

According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 5,258 covid deaths as of Jan 3. Using modeling based on regional Chinese data, the Britain-based health data firm Airfinity estimated that more than 5,000 people could be dying each day in the current outbreak.

An editorial in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, said Wednesday: “China and the Chinese people will surely win the final victory against the epidemic.”

Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan; Lyric Li and Min Joo Kim in Seoul; and Beatriz Rios in Brussels contributed to this report.

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