China has begun accepting U.S. coronavirus vaccination records in travel applications to the country, as it seeks to negotiate mutual recognition of vaccine passports with other nations.
Previously, China said it would facilitate entry only for those who have received Chinese vaccines, drawing backlash in countries where they aren’t available. No foreign coronavirus vaccine has yet been approved for use within China.
The new consideration of Western vaccines reflects China’s efforts to open up again as the pandemic wanes in some parts of the world and countries consider types of vaccine passports that can ease a return to international travel.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said James Zimmerman, a Beijing-based partner of international law firm Perkins Coie and a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.
“It’s very important for international travel to restart as soon as possible for business, tourism and education,” he said. “U.S. colleges and universities stand to have another lost year if something isn’t worked out soon.”
Travel to China remains limited to those deemed to be making essential trips, such as to resume work or visit sick relatives.
The Chinese Embassy stopped short of recommending American travelers get Western vaccines but said they should follow the injection schedule if they got them.
“The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines need two doses, and the J&J vaccine needs one dose,” the embassy said in a Chinese-language online notice dated April 16. “If those coming to China choose to get vaccinated, they should arrange their trip after they have completed the required number of inoculations.”
The embassy said U.S. coronavirus vaccination records could be used to support an application for the health code if the traveler’s antibody test comes back inconclusive.
China controlled its coronavirus outbreak earlier than most countries, and it began mass vaccination months ahead of the United States. But recently, Chinese health experts have been warning the country might fall behind in the vaccination rollout because of the lower efficacy rates of China’s vaccines and limited supplies of the shots compared with the massive population.
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that China was planning to approve its first foreign coronavirus vaccine before July.
An employee who answered the phone at China’s consulate in Chicago on Monday said that vaccination was not a requirement for entry into China. Those who have been vaccinated would have that information recorded in their health QR code, she said. The Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
To enter China now under pandemic measures, a traveler needs to test negative on two types of coronavirus tests: one for genetic material of the virus, and another for IgM antibodies that the body produces in the first weeks after infection.
But a recent vaccination can also produce a positive result on the antibody test, the Chinese Embassy said in the online notice.
Those who received an inconclusive positive IgM antibody test can still obtain a health QR code if they’ve received a Chinese vaccine, according to the new guidelines. If they received the vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, Moderna or Pfizer with partner BioNTech, they can get a code with a little more hassle, by providing their vaccination record and taking a second type of antibody test that scans for the N protein instead of the S protein.
Unvaccinated travelers who test positive on the antibody test face a longer string of tests to prove they are not infected.
Separate from the health QR code, travelers must apply for a visa in a process that has been tightened in the pandemic. Upon arrival in China, they are required to undergo two weeks of quarantine at an official facility, followed by a week of home quarantine.
China has been an early proponent of vaccine passports, or certificates that allow governments to verify that an international traveler has been vaccinated. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last month that China hoped to negotiate mutual recognition of its vaccines with other countries to speed the return of international travel.
But even as they cracked open the door for more Western visitors, Chinese authorities expressed concern over the burgeoning number of fake vaccination cards available for purchase in the United States. In announcing the new measures on Friday, the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles warned applicants against falsifying vaccination cards.
“The consulate . . . will review the vaccination certification, and if necessary, contact the department that issued the certification to confirm,” it said.
The embassy in Washington echoed the sentiment: “Where the report is untrue, or the vaccination certificate or test report has been falsified, a health code will not be issued. All the resulting consequences will be borne by the parties themselves.”
Pei Lin Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.