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US to Require Negative Covid Tests for Travelers From China

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The Biden administration, fearful that a surge of coronavirus infections in Beijing could spawn a latest and more dangerous variant, announced on Wednesday that it would require travelers from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, to present negative Covid-19 tests before entering the USA.

The requirement will take effect on Jan. 5, in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which made the announcement. Officials on the agency say they’re deeply concerned over China’s lack of transparency about its outbreak — and, specifically, its failure to trace and sequence variants and subvariants which might be circulating inside its borders.

C.D.C. officials said the requirement for testing will apply to air passengers no matter their nationality and vaccination status. It should also apply to travelers coming from China who enter the USA through a 3rd country, or who connect through the USA to other destinations. Italy and Japan have already imposed similar restrictions, and India has mandated negative Covid-19 test reports and random screening at airports for passengers arriving from China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand.

But as they did when President Donald J. Trump imposed pandemic travel limitations, some experts questioned whether the testing requirement would do any good — especially given the surge in cases in some parts of the USA. Within the northeast, scientists say virus spread is being fueled by an Omicron subvariant, XBB, which appears to be spreading more quickly than ones related to the dominant variant in Beijing.

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

But President Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, Dr. Ashish K. Jha, took issue with the comparison to how Mr. Trump had restricted entry by foreigners coming from China early within the pandemic.

The Biden administration’s policy “isn’t a ban on travel in any respect,” Dr. Jha said in an emailed statement after this text was published online. Reasonably, he called it a “prudent” testing requirement for all travelers coming from China, not only nationals of that country, that’s vital “because China — unlike virtually every other major nation — is just not updating the worldwide database on Covid cases and Covid variants.”

The Communist Party solid aside restrictive “zero Covid” policy, which set off mass protests that were a rare challenge to the Communist leadership.

China’s Covid outbreak has been worsening in recent days, with local governments reporting lots of of 1000’s of infections a day. Videos obtained by The Recent York Times show sick patients crowding hospital hallways. However the situation is difficult to trace in real time because China doesn’t release reliable Covid data.

The C.D.C. also announced on Wednesday that it was expanding a voluntary genomic surveillance program that appears for brand spanking new variants in anonymous swabs taken from international travelers at major American airports to incorporate Los Angeles and Seattle.

The Biden administration has offered vaccines and other Covid-19 support to China, but that assistance has been rejected, federal officials said. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken also spoke with Foreign Minister Wang Yi of China shortly before Christmas and “underscored the importance of transparency for the international community,” the State Department said.

Some experts nervous that as an alternative of encouraging transparency from China, the brand new policy could make the Chinese even less forthcoming.

“A very powerful strategy straight away is we want to enhance our political and diplomatic communication with China,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease expert at Emory University. He said he feared that the Biden administration’s latest policy would work “in the other way.”

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

“I believe they’re rightly attempting to put some pressure on China to uphold its international responsibilities,” she said, adding that the “compact of agreement” that calls on countries to share data a few pandemic “is simply going to work if countries call out bad behavior.”

After three years of insisting on a “zero Covid” policy, China made an abrupt turnabout in early December and lifted that policy, after mass protests over lockdowns that threatened the ruling Communist Party. Since then, there was a dramatic uptick within the variety of cases in Beijing.

A serious concern amongst public health officials is that the Chinese population has little natural immunity, allowing the virus to spread rapidly. Rapid spread, in turn, creates latest opportunities for the virus to evolve, posing a risk that latest variants may emerge and spread to other parts of the world.

Scientists say that doesn’t necessarily mean that a more dangerous variant will soon emerge in China. Over the past 12 months, people in the USA have gotten infected with waves of Omicron subvariants. But because people in China have essentially been walled off from those versions of the virus, scientists said that any of them could take off there.

“In some sense, whatever took off first might be going to be dominant there,” said James Wood, an infectious disease expert on the University of Recent South Wales in Sydney.

Some past variants are believed to have emerged when the virus mutated during lengthy infections in individuals with compromised immune systems, suggesting that the quantity of transmission in a given place may not by itself determine the likelihood of latest variants developing.

“While there’s an argument that with more people being infected, there could also be more opportunity for mutation and the event of a latest variant,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious-disease modeler at Columbia University, “we still don’t know whether latest variants predominantly develop during passage from individual to individual or inside individuals who experience prolonged infections.”

Scientists in Hong Kong have reported that an Omicron subvariant often known as BF.7 has been answerable for the Beijing outbreak. That variant is a sublineage of BA.5, which had until recently been dominant in the USA. But BF.7, while present in the USA for months, has not shown signs of outcompeting other versions of Omicron within the country.

The C.D.C. estimated that BF.7 made up 4 percent of cases in late December, and that it had turn into less common since November. Other Omicron subvariants that scientists imagine could also be more proficient at evading existing immune responses, including XBB, are currently more prevalent in the USA.

In the USA, the C.D.C. estimated last week that the XBB subvariant has grown to account for nearly a fifth of cases within the country, up from only 3 percent of cases a month earlier.

XBB is spreading especially quickly across the northeast United States, scientists have said, accounting for greater than half of latest infections there. And it appears to have a bonus over the BQ.1 Omicron subvariants which have recently been dominant in the USA, scientists said.

Scientists are within the early stages of studying the XBB subvariant. They said that a good newer version of that subvariant had emerged, often known as XBB.1.5. Preliminary studies have suggested that the newer version is adept at evading existing immune responses and at binding to human cells.

Especially in just a few months, over again people in China have a level of immunity from previous infections and the virus comes under more pressure to evolve there, it would be vital to scan for brand spanking new variants, scientists said.

“It might be nice if China were providing some type of summary of what variants they were seeing,” said Dr. Wood, of the University of Recent South Wales. “Otherwise, in the long run, that gets picked up in genomic surveillance in Europe or the U.S. or wherever persons are traveling.”

Still, he said, for the moment, China didn’t pose an outsized risk of spawning a latest variant.

“We’ve had an enormous variety of infections internationally,” he said. “That’s so much more infections than have occurred in China alone.”

Emily Anthes and Karan Deep Singh contributed reporting.

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