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People on the frozen Lamgma River in Beijing, China, on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022. Image Credit: Bloomberg

No novel Covid-19 variants have emerged in China, according to a global consortium that’s tracking coronavirus mutations, potentially easing concerns that the country’s record wave of infections would give rise to new strains that could circulate around the world.

National, provincial and private health-care authorities in the country have provided nearly 1,000 genetic sequences from infected patients to GISAID in the past five days, said Chief Executive Officer Peter Bogner. So far, all the samples continue to be omicron, though subvariants that have hit other parts of the world - including XBB.1 and BQ.1.1 - have emerged, he said.

“The variants continue to circulate without any significant changes that raise any spectre of concern,” Bogner said. “You do not have any kind of data that suggest anything but business as usual.”

China is also ramping up efforts to track mutations, with the recent upload of sequencing data comparing with just 25 samples submitted in the previous month, he said. The data are important for helping with future needs as statistics on cases and deaths provide backward-looking information, he said.

“There is huge self-interest,” he said. “That’s the one you can act on. It’s actionable information. You can adjust your diagnostic kits, your vaccines. There’s not actionable information in how many people died. It’s the rear-view mirror. Genomic information provides actionable insights.”

China’s move in early December to exit Covid Zero sparked a surge of infections, but the extent of the outbreak has been difficult to gauge after officials abandoned publishing an accurate case count and narrowed their definition of a virus death.

The information vacuum and the country’s plan to reopen its borders early next month have prompted a slew of nations to tighten measures for travellers from China on concerns the wave may spawn new variants or seed outbreaks. The US will require all airline passengers coming from China to show a negative test result, while Japan will test travellers upon arrival and India will require a PCR test.

Italy, which has introduced mandatory rapid tests for passengers coming from China, has said they haven’t found any concerning Covid mutations in recent arrivals.

GISAID’s Bogner said that countries around the world have pulled back on their pandemic work just as infection rates rise in many areas. Sequencing is an important part of the Covid effort, and it’s not inevitable that the next variant will come from China, he said.

“Surveillance is breaking down around the world,” he said. “To say we should worry about a variant emerging in mainland China - there is a whole planet to worry about. These things emerge where they want to emerge.”