Although the limits won’t have an impact on the overall rate of infection or the emergence of a new variation, they may force China to become less closed off.
Infections have been rising nationwide after China reversed its rigorous zero-COVID lockout restrictions. Hospitals are overflowing, and crematoriums are having a hard time keeping up with the influx of bodies.
Difficulty-targeting restrictions on arriving travelers from China have been put in place by dozens of countries, including those in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa.
Many countries, including the US, many European countries, India, Japan, South Korea, and Ghana demand that passengers from China present negative COVID-19 tests before boarding airplanes.
Some are demanding that these travelers face quarantine if the new tests they take upon landing are positive. The quantity of flights arriving from China has also been restricted by Japan.
In the meantime, South Korea stopped providing tourist visas to Chinese travelers at the beginning of January. And regardless of their nationality, all travelers from China are currently prohibited from entering Morocco.
China had stopped issuing short-term visas to South Korean and Japanese visitors as retaliation, raising fears that the chaotic travel environment of 2020 and 2021 would return. At that time, different countries had imposed a patchwork of restrictions on one another with little international coordination.
China announced on January 29 that it would resume issuing visas to citizens of Japan.
The US, countries in the European Union, and many other countries have defended their actions by claiming that they are intended to safeguard their populations.
However, in a recent interview with LBC radio in the UK, United Kingdom Transport Secretary Mark Harper acknowledged another potential justification for the policies: incentivizing Beijing to be more open about data relating to the COVID increase by escalating the penalty of secrecy.
So what does the research indicate? Are the limits placed on Chinese travelers going to make the globe a safer place?
The simple answer, according to scientists who spoke with Al Jazeera, is that there is little proof that the limits will have a major impact on either the number of COVID-19 cases in other nations or the spread of new versions. However, it’s possible that the policies are only succeeding in pressuring China to open up more.
Will China’s lethal ascent continue?
China has fought to slow the virus’s rapid spread ever since it loosened stringent regulations in December in response to significant protests. Nearly 60,000 COVID-related deaths were reported in the nation’s hospitals between December 8 and January 12.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington recently made a prediction that the repeal of zero-COVID restrictions could result in up to 300,000 deaths by April and close to a million by the end of the year.
It has been reported by other governments that they are concerned about virus-carrying travelers from China. After two planes from China landed with nearly half the passengers testing positive for COVID-19, Italy, for example, enacted its new regulations.
Furthermore, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported that from just 19 in November to 349 in December, the number of tourists from China carrying viruses to South Korea increased dramatically.
However, several meta-analyses — comparisons of numerous different study types — have demonstrated that such actions are most successful early in an outbreak when they can stop the spread of the virus.
Travel restrictions only function in conjunction with domestic regulations like rigorous mask requirements, social seclusion, and lockdowns once an epidemic has spread widely throughout the globe.
Few people nowadays are willing or able to tolerate such home regulations, according to Summer Marion, a lecturer and researcher on global studies and health issues at Bentley University in Massachusetts, who spoke with Al Jazeera.
The majority of nations that target tourists from China have loosened mask requirements and other restrictions on their own citizens, despite dealing with heavy caseloads. For instance, the US reports an average of almost 40,000 new cases per day.
According to epidemiologist and head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy Michael Osterholm, countries may have chosen the actions they did because doing so would make them appear sensitive to the Chinese crisis in the eyes of their own citizens.
Experts believe that science is probably not.
According to Karen Anne Grépin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong School of Public Health, even if every traveler arriving from China tested positive, there would still be a very tiny number of COVID-19 cases in the US today.
For instance, between January 14 and January 21, South Korea reported 31,106 new cases, roughly 100 times the monthly total of 349 Chinese COVID-positive travelers that alarmed the country into enacting restrictions.
The potential appearance of “new variations” was another concern mentioned by the US CDC in its justification for its travel restrictions.
Curbs able to halt a new variant?
There is yet no proof that a brand-new strain of the virus is to blame for the increase in cases in China.
According to data from China, which was disclosed by the World Health Organization (WHO) on January 4, two well-known subvariants of the Omicron coronavirus strain are thought to be responsible for more than 97 percent of all new cases.
Additionally, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control of the EU recently came to the conclusion that “the variations circulating in China are already circulating” in the countries of the bloc and “are not challenging for the immune response” of their citizens.
However, given that infections are still widespread in China, it does not follow that new variations cannot arise from those that already exist. When it announced the travel restrictions, the US CDC mentioned this concern.
The travel restrictions, “if we accept what public health experts are telling us,” are intended to prevent the importation of potentially new strains that may yet develop in China but have not yet been confirmed, Grépin said Al Jazeera. That argument, in her opinion, is absurd.
China is not the only nation to have had a recent increase in cases; infection rates also rose significantly in Japan and South Korea last year. However, only China has been issued travel restrictions. There is minimal proof that China has a noticeably higher chance of harboring novel variations.
The Omicron subvariant US XBB.1.5, which was initially found in New York City, is the new variant that is currently spreading like wildfire across the US and perhaps to other nations, according to Grépin.
When Omicron initially appeared in late 2021, Grépin had argued in a Washington Post opinion piece that travel restrictions imposed by the West on South Africa, where it was discovered, and other African countries would be ineffectual.
Omicron had in fact overtaken other variants by the end of December 2021 in the US, despite tighter border controls.
According to Peter Chin-Hong, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of California San Francisco Health, new variants today are also less of a cause for concern than they were earlier in the pandemic.
You can give me a Dr. Doomsday variation, but it won’t have the same impact as it did during the beginning of the pandemic, Chin-Hong replied.
As he said to Al Jazeera, “the population is in a totally different situation, with plenty of immunizations, boosting, and natural illness waves.” Additionally helpful are today’s commonly accessible medications like Paxlovid and Remdesivir.
They target enzymes that are essential for viral replication regardless of the variant, making them mostly effective in helping to avoid the worst effects from novel viral variants.
Travel restrictions are most effective against illnesses with severe, sudden onset of symptoms, according to Chin-Hong, and earlier public health disasters like the Ebola outbreak also demonstrate this.
COVID-19 does not match those requirements due to its low infection rate, prolonged latency (symptoms may not appear for several days after an infection), and widespread global distribution. Even if a passenger’s test results were negative, they can still be infected.
However, analysts pointed out another reason why nations may be enforcing strict regulations on visitors from China.
Will China allow for data access?
Beijing has referred to the limitations as “discriminatory.” Other governments and authorities, however, have asserted that China is solely to blame.
The US reportedly provided China vaccination doses as well as other assistance. However, it has maintained that its medical and vaccine supplies are sufficient and that “the COVID situation is under control.” Osterholm of the University of Minnesota told Al Jazeera that Beijing’s viewpoint lacks credibility.
In many ways, China has concealed its COVID-19 data from the rest of the globe. It has frequently been accused of hiding COVID deaths under the guise of mortality due to underlying diseases that the virus had merely made worse.
Many experts worry that even its most recent projections of a substantial increase in deaths in December and January are probably far from accurate.
Osterholm claimed, “I’m getting significantly more information about China at the moment from journalists on the ground or from private sector enterprises [than from the government].”
In either scenario, the population is under-vaccinated and is being threatened by a poorly planned reversal of zero-COVID policies with insufficient supplies of effective antiviral medications.
Therefore, even if the current testing and travel restrictions imposed on China have minimal likelihood of causing epidemics in other nations, governments all around the world could still benefit from these actions. The only thing left is to pressurize the Chinese government to provide more information and do more virus sequencing, according to Chin-Hong.
By emphasizing “the lack of adequate and transparent epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data being supplied” by China, the US CDC implied as much in its initial announcement of the new travel restrictions.
Travel restrictions have been deemed “understandable” by the WHO, who also pointed to China’s lack of data transparency. There could be some effects of the pressure.
Since late December, China has significantly increased its genomic data submissions to the GISAID sequencing database, enabling researchers from other countries to more closely examine the nature of infections in China.
Between December 1 and December 24, it supplied only 52 sequences, but during the following six days, it submitted 540. China supplied 2,641 sequences over the last four weeks, and the pattern persisted through January, according to GISAID.
Many experts, including Marion from Bentley University, advise against blaming a single cause for the actions taken in response to Chinese travelers. Though it appears like a crucial motivator, openness, making these projects examples of policies driving data collection rather than data-driven policy.
But there are two things that stand out. “If you can’t control it in the country from which people are departing, you’re not going to control it at your border either,” Osterholm first asserted. And second, the world’s reaction to COVID-19 would only be improved by a more open China.