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Rare glimpse of Covid infections in China from airport testing data

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SEOUL – As more travelers from China begin visiting international destinations for the first time in three years, Covetous data from sites with on-arrival testing offers a glimpse into the pandemic situation in China, which the World Health Organization has said has been clouded by insufficient data.

In late December, two flights from China to Italy brought nearly 100 passengers infected with coronovirus; about half of one flight and a third of another tested positive.

Countries around the world soon implemented increased testing requirements for arrivals from China, which came into effect during the run-up to the surge in travel over the Lunar New Year holiday in late January. The new rules come into effect amid reports of overcrowded hospitals and medicine shortages in China after it reversed its “zero covid” policy.

A surge in Covid-19 cases in China sold out hospitals in January 2023 after Beijing lifted its strict pandemic controls a month earlier. (Video: Reuters)

Among the strictest are policies in Italy, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, which require on-arrival testing for passengers from China. The United States requires proof of a negative test before departure, while other countries are testing wastewater from aircraft on flights originating in China.

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Official data showed infection rates of more than 20% among travelers from China to neighboring South Korea and Taiwan in the first week of January.

Korea Agency for Disease Control and Prevention data obtained by The Washington Post showed a 23.2% infection rate for short-term visitors from China to Korea (or 314 of 1,352 tested at the airport) from Dec. January. The KDCA expects to publish data on all travelers from China next week, an official told The Post.

According to the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control, from January 1 to 5, about one in five travelers (21%) from mainland China tested positive for covid, or 1,111 of 5,283 arrivals.

On Friday, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare reported that about 8% of visitors to China from Dec. 30 to Jan. 6 tested positive for Covid, or 408 of 4,895 arrivals. Data from Italy were not immediately available.

“These numbers certainly [the] tip of the iceberg, highlighting the immense size of infections in China,” Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in an email, responding to early reports suggesting a 20-50% infection rate among the Chinese. Travelers.

The numbers are particularly high, “given that people typically don’t travel abroad unless they feel fine and healthy or don’t have symptoms,” he said.

However, given the high levels of exposure to covid in many countries, “it is unreasonable to see [visitors from China] as sick or dangerous,” he said.

Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, called the high rates of early infection “completely consistent with predictions that most of the population of major cities have already been infected”. He said in an email that people can remain positive on PCR tests for weeks.

“Given that most infections occurred in late December and early January, and more than half of the population in major cities have already been infected, it is quite plausible that high percentages of travelers tested positive,” he wrote. “The majority of those who tested positive have recently recovered from the infection rather than still being sick and/or contagious.”

Last month, China partially lifted domestic restrictions in a move seen as a response to a rare public backlash directed at the country’s notoriously strict zero Covid policy.

On Sunday, China will end extensive quarantine requirements for arriving passengers, a decision that will mainly benefit Chinese people who want to depart or overseas Chinese people who want to return. Mainland China is still closed to foreign tourists.

The change comes just a few weeks before the Lunar New Year, which begins on January 22nd. Before the pandemic, traveling during China’s “Golden Week” national holiday was believed to be the most important in the world. largest annual human migration.

The Chinese holiday “will ensure that the virus reaches every corner of the country by the end of January,” Cowling said.

Huang said the holiday season will encourage “retaliation tourism” – travel making up for lost time during the pandemic – and will likely cause a spike in outbound infections. But he also said travelers leaving China were unlikely to make the virus worse elsewhere.

“So far, there is no evidence of new subvariants emerging from China,” he said. “Given that most of these countries have learned to live with Covid-19, the influx of Chinese visitors will not lead to an increase in cases in these countries.”

The changes also come amid broader scrutiny from Beijing, which has stopped counting asymptomatic cases of Covid. The World Health Organization questioned China’s data and asked Beijing for more information.

the test requirements targeted at arrivals from China drew the ire of Chinese officials. “Some of these measures are disproportionate and simply unacceptable,” a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs told a press conference on Jan. 3. “We firmly reject the use of COVID measures for political purposes and will take corresponding measures in response to varying situations based on the principle of reciprocity.”

Julia Mio Inuma in Tokyo and Lily Kuo in Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.