Concern over the spread of new Covid strains is raised by China’s decision to open up travel.
As China abruptly lifted some of its strictest Covid-19 regulations, including those requiring travelers to be quarantined, virologists are anxiously awaiting to see how this may affect Covid-19 varieties and their spread globally, with some nations already stepping up precautions.
The decision to remove quarantine for foreign visitors starting on January 8 has raised fears about the possibility of new varieties spreading outside of China. Several nations, including Japan and India, have put policies in place to stop an influx of cases.
The lack of transparency regarding Covid in China, according to Australian infectious diseases specialist Prof. Dominic Dwyer, is concerning because “we don’t know what variants are circulating in China at the moment… [and] whether those variants are different in terms of their response to vaccination.”
The zero-Covid strategy in China is coming to an end as the number of cases rises and immunization rates, particularly among the elderly, are low. Beijing has stopped reporting daily case counts and has stopped mass testing, making it harder than ever to determine the prevalence and severity of Covid.
Prof. Dwyer, one of the experts tasked with traveling to Wuhan early in 2021 to investigate the origins of the pandemic in a report for the World Health Organization (WHO), said, “They’ve changed very quickly from a zero Covid approach to completely relaxing things, so maybe that’s happened too quickly to keep up.”
Airfinity, a British health data modeling company, says that there are currently more than one million cases and more than 5,000 new infections every day, even though official Chinese records only show three new Covid deaths for Tuesday.
Dr. Louise Blair, the epidemiology director at Airfinity, noted that China has also modified the method it reports Covid-19 mortality to only include people who pass away from pneumonia or respiratory collapse after testing positive.
This is distinct from other nations, she noted, which record deaths within a certain time range following a positive test or if Covid-19 is listed as the cause of death.
Physicians in China are reporting a significant infection and death rise, and experts say the absence of data is likely disguising the number and severity of cases. According to Beijing-based physician Howard Bernstein, who works in the ICU ward at the Beijing United Family Hospital, the unit is “packed” and patients are coming at emergency rooms sicker and in higher numbers.
As a result, neighboring nations are taking independent action to stop an outbreak of illnesses. Fumio Kishida, the prime minister of Japan, declared on Tuesday that beginning on December 30, travelers who have gone to mainland China at any point over the previous seven days must present a negative Covid test upon arrival or face a seven-day quarantine.
Japan is restricting the amount of immigrants from China after only easing its own border controls in October. According to local news source Kyodo News, Kishida noted as he announced the measures that “Concern has been developing in Japan as it is difficult to grasp the detailed circumstances.”
According to reports, US officials are debating the need for further steps to monitor travelers who have returned home. While the department of health “continues to monitor the global situation,” an Australian government official told the Guardian, “travel arrangements for Australians and visitors to the nation remain unchanged.”
In order to help the rest of the world understand which Covid variations are in circulation, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has urged China to exchange data and carry out pertinent studies. Ghebreyesus stated, “WHO is particularly worried over the unfolding situation in China with growing reports of severe sickness,” during a briefing on December 21.
“WHO requires more precise information on illness severity, hospital admissions, and needs for ICU support in order to provide a thorough risk assessment of the situation on the ground.”
This information is essential, according to Dwyer, because in nations where Covid-19 is out of control, the sheer number of infected persons increases the likelihood that a rare incident would result in alterations to the virus, possibly leading to the emergence of a new variant of concern.
The Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccinations China has relied on seem less effective than mRNA vaccines used elsewhere, and prolonged lockdowns in China mean that a sizeable percentage of the population has not been exposed to newer variations.
According to Dwyer, “it is the setting where you’d expect new varieties to arise.”
“Therefore, it will be crucial to keep an eye on sick travelers coming back from China. We are unsure as to whether such variations [in China] differ in any way from those we have observed elsewhere.
We’re just still collecting data, which we’ll be able to do more of as individuals visit and leave China, he explained.
In Malaysia, the ministry of health is urging patients to receive booster doses and is promoting antiviral medications in preparation for a spike. In India, a PCR test is required of all visitors from China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand.
Currently, the increase in cases is not deterring individuals who are compelled to travel to China to see their loved ones. Anyone traveling to China, according to Dwyer, should make sure they are up to date on all immunizations, including booster shots, and that they are also immunized against the influenza virus, which is also growing quickly in China.
Given the strains on the health system, “you wouldn’t want to be getting sick in China for any reason,” Dwyer said.
And individuals should have a PCR test performed if they visited China and then had a disease. If the result is positive, the sample can be sequenced so we can learn about any nearby variations.