WHO says China COVID travel restrictions ‘understandable’

Many countries are imposing restrictions on travellers from China because of a surge in infections.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has said it needs more information to assess the latest surge in COVID-19 infections in China, but called the global concern and uptick in travel restrictions “understandable”.

Several countries are imposing restrictions on travellers from China because of a surge in COVID-19 infections after the country rolled back its stringent “zero-Covid” policy.

“In the absence of comprehensive information from China, it is understandable that countries around the world are acting in ways that they believe may protect their populations,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote on Twitter late on Thursday.

He urged China to be more forthcoming with information about the state of the pandemic.

On Friday, senior Chinese health officials held a video conference with WHO officials, China’s National Health Commission said in a statement. They discussed the current situation, medical treatment, vaccination and other technical matters.

The United States joined several other nations in demanding negative COVID-19 tests from travellers from China, after Beijing announced it was ending mandatory quarantine on arrival, prompting many Chinese to make plans to travel abroad.

“We remain concerned about the evolving situation and we continue encouraging China to track the COVID-19 virus and vaccinate the highest risk people,” wrote Ghebreyesus.

“We continue to offer our support for clinical care and protecting [China’s] health system.”

“China believes all countries’ responses to COVID-19 should be scientific and fair,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Thursday.

Beijing has insisted it has been sharing relevant information and data with the international community, and said the COVID-19 requirements being imposed by countries on travelers from China should be based on science.

“We shared the sequence of the new coronavirus at the first instance, and thus making important contributions to the development of relevant vaccines, drugs in other countries,” Wenbin told a media briefing on Friday.

The worldwide coronavirus death toll stands at nearly 6.7 million since the virus emerged in the city of Wuhan.

Some countries including the United States have began sampling wastewater from international aircraft arriving from China to track new variants.

William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University Department of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee, said testing waste water has become “increasingly common”.

“Testing waste water from passengers incoming from china will give a sense of which strains of the virus are out there, that’s very important,” Schaffner told Al Jazeera.

“We may be able to get a better sense of whether new variants are cropping up in china, variants of possible concern,” he said.

According to him, a contributing factor to this surge of infections is the “opening up” of travel.

“People are permitted to go out and about … There is an opportunity for the virus to mutate and create new variants that might evade the protection of our current vaccines,” he said.

Beijing ‘transparent’

China maintains it has been transparent with its information, despite its health commission announcing it would no longer release an official daily COVID-19 death toll.

“China has always been publishing information on COVID-19 deaths and severe cases in the spirit of openness and transparency,” said commission official Jiao Yahui on Thursday.

At a press briefing held by China’s State Council, it was announced there were about 5,500 new local cases and one death on Friday – but with the end of mass testing and the narrowing of criteria for what counts as a COVID fatality, those numbers are no longer believed to reflect reality.

Some experts estimate there may be as many as 9,000 daily deaths.

The discrepancy is accounted for by the fact that China counts COVID-19 deaths only as cases of people who died of respiratory failure induced by the virus after testing positive with a nucleic acid test, rather than including all deaths within 28 days of positive tests, Jiao said.

“China has always been committed to the scientific criteria for judging COVID-19 deaths, from beginning to end, which are in line with the international criteria,” Jiao said.

Restrictions ‘unwarranted’

The European Union’s health agency said restrictions on travellers from China were not warranted as a unified bloc-wide policy across its 27 member nations – at least for the time being.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said it regarded “screenings and travel measures on travellers from China unjustified”.

The Omicron BF.7 variant sweeping through China is already in widespread circulation in the EU, and its associated risk has not grown, the ECDC said in a statement.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies