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A passenger arriving from China is swabbed at Milan Malpensa airport. Alamy

WHO holds 'high-level meeting' with Chinese officials to discuss Covid-19 surge

It comes after Britain joined France and Spain in requiring that travellers arriving from China show a negative Covid test.

LAST UPDATE | 30 Dec 2022

THE WORLD HEALTH Organisation has held a “high-level meeting” with Chinese officials on the current surge in Covid-19 cases in the country, stressing the importance of sharing real-time data on the rising cases.

The WHO also invited Chinese scientists to present detailed data on viral sequencing at a meeting of the Technical Advisory Group on the evolution of the virus on 3 January.

It comes after Britain joined France in requiring that travellers arriving from China show a negative Covid-19 test.

Italy and Spain have also made similar changes.

In a statement this evening, the WHO said it held the meeting “to seek further information on the situation, and to offer WHO’s expertise and further support”.

“High-level officials from China’s National Health Commission and the National Disease Control and Prevention Administration briefed WHO on China’s evolving strategy and actions in the areas of epidemiology, monitoring of variants, vaccination, clinical care, communication and R&D,” the statement read.

The WHO said it asked for regular sharing of specific and real-time data on the epidemiological situation and data on vaccinations, especially in vulnerable people and those over 60 years old.

 It also called on China to “strengthen viral sequencing, clinical management, and impact assessment, and expressed willingness to provide support on these areas, as well as on risk communications on vaccination to counter hesitancy”.

“WHO has invited Chinese scientists to present detailed data on viral sequencing at a meeting of the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution on 3 January,” the statement added.

London and Paris became the latest governments to impose restrictions on arrivals from China after the country announced plans to start reissuing passports and visas for overseas trips.

Given the rapid rise in coronavirus infections in the country, concern has grown in other parts of the world over possible Covid reinfections. 

The UK today announced that it will require travellers leaving China for Britain to provide proof of a negative Covid-19 test before boarding from 5 January.

The UK Health Security Agency will also launch surveillance from 8 January, which will see a sample of passengers arriving in England from China tested for the virus as they arrive.

The British Government said that airlines will be required to check that passengers from China have a negative test before departure, with travellers required to show evidence of a negative test.

Health Secretary Steve Barclay said that the UK was taking a “balanced and precautionary approach”, describing the measures as “temporary” while officials assess the latest Covid-19 data.

“This allows our world-leading scientists at the UK Health Security Agency to gain rapid insight into potential new variants circulating in China,” he said.

In a tweet, France’s Minister Delegate for Transport Clement Beaune said in a tweet that from Sunday, Covid tests will be carried out on people arriving from China while masks will be mandatory. 

Earlier today, Spain’s health minister announced that passengers arriving at Spanish airports from China will be screened for Covid.

Travellers from China will have to show “proof that they are negative… or a full vaccination list”, health minister Carolina Darias told a press conference.

South Korea and Israel will also require negative Covid tests for all travellers from China. They join Italy, Japan, India, Malaysia, Taiwan and the United States.

Irish authorities are also “closely” monitoring the situation in relation to Covid-19 and travel after some countries introduced mandatory testing on travellers arriving from China.

However, the Department of Foreign Affairs said the travel advice remains unchanged.

Since 6 March 2022, travellers to Ireland are not required to show proof of vaccination, proof of recovery or a negative PCR test result upon arrival.

China said this week it would end mandatory quarantine on arrival, prompting many Chinese to make plans to travel abroad.

However, hospitals across the country have been overwhelmed by an explosion of infections following Beijing’s decision to lift strict rules around the virus.

On Wednesday, a senior US health official said Beijing had provided only limited data to global databases about variants circulating in China, and its testing and reporting on new cases had diminished.

Yesterday, the head of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also urged China to be more forthcoming on the pandemic. It was “understandable” that some countries had introduced restrictions in response to its Covid-19 surge, he said.

But today, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin insisted: “Since the outbreak of the epidemic, China has been sharing relevant information and data with the international community, including WHO, in an open and transparent manner.

“We shared the sequence of the new coronavirus at the first instance, thus making important contributions to the development of relevant vaccines (and) drugs in other countries.”

Different European approaches

In Beijing, Wang argued that health experts in several countries had decided there was no need to impose entry restrictions on travellers from China.

The European Union’s infectious disease agency (ECDC) said yesterday that such restrictions were not necessary for the EU as a whole.

The agency added that potential imported infections were “rather low” compared to the numbers already circulating on a daily basis, which healthcare systems “are currently able to manage”.

Germany seemed to take that on board today, saying it did not currently see the need to impose routine tests on arrivals from China

But Health Minister Karl Lauterbach did argue for a coordinated EU-wide system to monitor variants across European airports.

“We need a European solution,” he said.

A coordinated approach would make it easier to detect new variants of the coronavirus quickly and take appropriate measures, he added.

And while routine tests were “not yet necessary” for arrivals from China, that could change given that data from China could not be reliably obtained.

Meanwhile, in a statement to The Journal, a spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs said: “The international epidemiological situation in relation to Covid-19 and travel is closely monitored, including collaboratively with EU partners.”

The spokesperson added that up to date information on travel to Ireland is published here.

Rival estimates

A national disease control body in China said there were about 5,500 new local cases and one death today.

With the end of mass testing however and the narrowing of criteria for what counts as a Covid fatality, those numbers are no longer believed to reflect reality.

Jiao Yahui, from China’s National Health Commission (NHC), insisted yesterday Beijing had always published data “on Covid-19 deaths and severe cases in the spirit of openness and transparency”.

The NHC said last week it would no longer release an official daily Covid death toll.

But health risk analysis firm Airfinity said it currently estimates 9,000 daily deaths and 1.8 million infections per day in China, and it expects 1.7 million fatalities across the country by the end of April 2023.

The Britain-based research firm said its model was based on data from China’s regional provinces before changes to reporting infections were implemented, combined with case growth rates from other former zero-Covid countries when they lifted restrictions.

China said this month it would end mandatory quarantine for people arriving in the country and that it had abandoned strict measures to contain the virus.

The world’s most populous country will downgrade its management of Covid-19 from 8 January, treating it as a Class B infection rather than a more serious Class A.

Chinese citizens have been largely confined to their country since Beijing pulled up the drawbridge in March 2020.

There are also reports that official data from China may not fully represent the scale of the crisis facing the country.

© AFP 2022 with additional reporting from Diarmuid Pepper and Press Association. 

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