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US to require negative COVID tests for travelers from China

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“We have had a large number of infections internationally.”

Passengers wearing face masks walk through the Capital Airport terminal in Beijing on December 13, 2022. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

The Biden administration, fearful that a surge of coronavirus infections in Beijing could spawn a new, more dangerous variant, announced on Wednesday that it would require travelers from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, to show proof of identity. negative COVID-19 tests before entering the United States. states.

The requirement will go into effect Jan. 5, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which made the announcement. Agency officials say they are deeply concerned about China’s lack of transparency about its outbreak — and, in particular, its failure to track and sequence the variants and subvariants circulating within its borders.

  • New coronavirus subvariant, XBB, now prevalent in New England

CDC officials said the testing requirement will apply to air passengers, regardless of nationality and vaccination status. It will also apply to travelers from China entering the United States through a third country, or connecting through the United States to other destinations. Italy and Japan have already imposed similar restrictions, and India has imposed negative COVID-19 test reports and random screening at airports for passengers arriving from China, Japan, South Korea, from Hong Kong and Thailand.

But as they did when President Donald Trump imposed pandemic travel limitations, some experts have questioned whether requiring testing would do any good – especially given the rise in cases in some regions of the United States. In the northeast, scientists say the spread of the virus is being fueled by an omicron subvariant, XBB, which appears to be spreading faster than those linked to the dominant variant in Beijing.

“I understand politically why this needs to be done, but ultimately it’s a false sense of security that we’re really slowing transmission,” said Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University. of Minnesota.

China’s COVID outbreak has worsened in recent days, with local governments reporting hundreds of thousands of infections daily. Videos obtained by The New York Times show sick patients crowded into hospital hallways. But the situation is difficult to monitor in real time because China does not publish reliable COVID data.

The CDC also announced Wednesday that it is expanding a voluntary genomics surveillance program that searches for new variants in anonymous swabs taken from international travelers at major US airports to include Los Angeles and Seattle.

Some experts feared that instead of encouraging transparency on China’s part, the policy would make the Chinese even less open.

“The most important strategy right now is that we need to improve our political and diplomatic communication with China,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University. He said he fears the Biden administration’s new policy will work “in the opposite direction.”

But Jennifer Nuzzo, director of the Pandemic Center at Brown University School of Public Health, said the administration had little choice.

“I think they are rightly trying to pressure China to live up to its international responsibilities,” she said, adding that the “compact of understanding” which calls on countries to share data on a pandemic “will only work if countries call bad behavior.

After three years of insisting on a “zero COVID” policy, China made a sharp U-turn in early December and lifted that policy, after mass protests against lockdowns that threatened the ruling Communist Party. Since then, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cases in Beijing.

A major concern of public health officials is that the Chinese population has little natural immunity, allowing the virus to spread quickly. The rapid spread, in turn, creates new opportunities for the virus to evolve, posing a risk that new variants could emerge and spread to other parts of the world.

Scientists say that doesn’t necessarily mean a more dangerous variant will soon emerge in China. Over the past year, people in the United States have been infected with waves of omicron subvariants. But because people in China have essentially been isolated from these versions of the virus, scientists said any of them could take off there.

“In some sense, whatever took off first is likely to be dominant there,” said James Wood, an infectious disease expert at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

Some past variants are thought to have arisen when the virus mutated during prolonged infections in people with weakened immune systems, suggesting the amount of transmission in a given location may not alone determine the likelihood development of new variants.

“While there is an argument that more people are getting infected, there may be more opportunity for mutation and development of a new variant,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease modeler at the University. from Columbia, “we still don’t know if the new variants develop primarily when passing from person to person or in people who experience prolonged infections.

Scientists in Hong Kong have reported that an omicron subvariant known as BF.7 was responsible for the outbreak in Beijing. This variant is a subline of BA.5, which until recently was dominant in the United States. But BF.7, although present in the United States for months, did not show signs of superiority over other versions of omicron in the country.

The CDC estimated that BF.7 accounted for 4% of cases in late December and had become less common since November. Other omicron subvariants that scientists believe may be better at evading existing immune responses, including XBB, are more prevalent in the United States.

In the United States, the CDC estimated last week that the XBB subvariant has risen to account for nearly a fifth of cases in the country, up from just 3% of cases a month earlier.

XBB is spreading particularly rapidly in the northeastern United States, scientists have said, accounting for more than half of new infections there. And it appears to have an advantage over the BQ.1 omicron subvariants that have recently been dominant in the United States, scientists have said.

Scientists are in the early stages of studying the XBB subvariant. They said that an even newer version of this sub-variant had emerged, known as XBB.1.5. Preliminary studies have suggested that the new version is adept at evading existing immune responses and binding to human cells.

Especially in a few months, once people in China once again have a degree of immunity to previous infections and the virus comes under more pressure to evolve there, it will be important to search for new variants, the scientists said.

“It would be nice if China provided some sort of summary of the variants they were seeing,” said Wood of the University of New South Wales. “Otherwise, in the end, it gets picked up in genomic surveillance in Europe or the United States or wherever people travel.”

Still, he said, at the moment China does not pose an outsized risk of generating a new variant.

“We have had a large number of infections internationally,” he said. “That’s a lot more infections than what’s happened in China alone.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.



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