Washington: The United States is considering Covid entry restrictions for travelers from China, US officials said Tuesday, after Beijing dramatically loosened hardline containment measures this month.
Infections have surged across China as key pillars of its containment policy have been dismantled, prompting US officials to express concern at the potential for new variants to be unleashed.
Covid quarantine scrapped
That potential became even more real Monday when Beijing said it would scrap mandatory Covid quarantine for overseas arrivals from January 8, prompting many in China to rush to plan trips abroad.
“There are mounting concerns in the international community on the ongoing Covid-19 surges in China and the lack of transparent data, including viral genomic sequence data, being reported from the PRC,” the US officials said, referring to the People’s Republic of China.
‘Impossible to track’
Beijing authorities have acknowledged the outbreak is “impossible” to track and have done away with much-maligned case tallies, in addition to narrowing the criteria by which Covid fatalities are counted.
The winter surge comes ahead of major public holidays next month in which hundreds of millions of people are expected to travel to their hometowns to reunite with relatives.
China’s Center for Disease Prevention and Control reported 5,231 new Covid cases and three deaths nationwide Wednesday - likely a drastic undercount since people are no longer required to declare infections to authorities.
Authorities are using data from online surveys, hospital visits, demand for fever medicines and emergency calls to “make up for shortcomings in (officially) reported figures”, disease control official Yin Wenwu said at a press briefing Tuesday.
Beijing city authorities plan to distribute the oral Covid drug Paxlovid at local hospitals and community clinics, but it remains extremely difficult to obtain for ordinary people.
The US-developed treatment was briefly available on e-commerce platform JD.com and delivery platform Meituan in the past few days before both ran out of stock.
Lack of genomic data
But it is the lack of genomic data that has sparked particular concern abroad, making it “increasingly difficult for public health officials to ensure that they will be able to identify any potential new variants and take prompt measures to reduce the spread,” the US officials said.
The United States “is following the science and advice of public health experts, consulting with partners, and considering taking similar steps” to countries such as Japan and Malaysia, which have announced public health measures to counter the spread of Covid from China.
China’s loosening of measures effectively brings the curtain down on a zero-Covid regime of mass testing, lockdowns and long quarantines that has roiled supply chains and buffeted business engagement with the world’s second-largest economy.
Beijing’s foreign ministry said Tuesday that countries should uphold “scientific and appropriate” disease controls that “should not affect normal personnel exchanges.”
Beijing’s sudden pivot away from containing Covid-19 has caused jitters around the world. The United States is “considering taking similar steps” to countries such as Japan and Malaysia, they added.
Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China claims as its own, said Wednesday that it would also screen travellers from the mainland for the virus.
Hospitals and crematoriums across China have been overwhelmed with undervaccinated elderly patients, while residents report widespread shortages of fever medicine as the virus spreads largely unchecked among the population of 1.4 billion.
Asked about Japan’s entry restrictions, Beijing’s foreign ministry Tuesday said that countries should uphold “scientific and appropriate” disease controls that “should not affect normal personnel exchanges”.
All passengers arriving in China have had to undergo mandatory centralised quarantine since March 2020. The period of isolation fell from three
weeks to one week in June, and to five days last month.
The end of that rule in January will also see Covid-19 downgraded to a Class B infectious disease, allowing authorities to adopt looser controls.
On Tuesday, Chinese immigration authorities announced the gradual resumption from January 8 of passport issuance for “tourism” or “overseas visits of friends”.