China is not keen on being labeled as the world’s Covid spreader, but, just as it was three years ago, the lack of transparency about the data on the spread of the disease among its population has led several Western countries to take precautions by imposing swabs on those arriving from China.

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed understanding for countries that have introduced testing requirements for travelers from China. A move that Beijing, fearing international isolation, deemed “unscientific” and “unreasonable”. And, almost forgetting that only a few weeks ago it had applied draconian quarantines in special hotels for anyone arriving in China from abroad, it threatened to retaliate with countermeasures.

At their Wednesday meeting, EU member states failed to agree on mandatory testing, but issued a strong recommendation instead. The experts also advised that passengers aboard flights from China should wear either a surgical mask or an FFP2 (N95) mask. The measures are to be reviewed by the middle of the month.

Countries pushing for measures

Italy introduced on December 28 as the first country in Europe mandatory coronavirus testing for people entering from China because of the wave of infections there. Meanwhile, Germany, Britain, France, South Korea and the United States joined in imposing stricter health regulations on arrivals from China. Germany’s Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said on Thursday that German entry regulations would be changed in the short term and that travelers from China would in the future need at least one negative rapid antigen test when entering Germany.

Earlier on Thursday, Belgium and Sweden had announced that they were also introducing mandatory Covid testing for travelers from China. Austria announced that it would do this for all flights from China as of next week.

Slovenia, which doesn’t have direct air connections with China, supports a coordinated approach of EU members in responding to the entry of passengers from China into the EU. “Slovenia will not do anything on its own, we will stand in solidarity with Europe, just as most European countries will react, so will we,” said Minister of Health Danijel Bešič Loredan on Wednesday. Masks on airplanes would be recommended, but not mandatory.

Bulgaria, on the other hand, considers it unnecessary at this stage to implement any measures concerning travelers from China. Bulgaria and China do not have any direct flight connections either. For people traveling from and to China, Bulgaria recommends covid vaccination and the use of facial masks.

A similar approach is being taken by its neighbor Romania. The country’s Minister of Health, Alexandru Rafila, said that most infections were mild, and the strains circulating in Europe were similar to those in China. “I don’t think we will return to the situation of the past years, even if the number of cases will increase significantly, because the new forms of the disease, including the strains circulating in China at the moment, are not as serious, they do not pose the same danger in terms of hospitalization as the older forms.”

In the Netherlands, there have been no mandatory tests for travelers from China so far. But the Dutch airline KLM is introducing extra coronavirus protection measures on its flights from China. The crew will be provided with FFP2 masks and safety glasses, KLM announced in Amsterdam, according to a report by news agency ANP. Direct contact with passengers during service on board will be kept brief. Trade unions had previously expressed great concern about the safety of KLM employees because of the strong wave of infections in China.

New virus variants?

The WHO continues to press for more information from the Chinese authorities.

Meanwhile, WHO chief Tedros said the coronavirus variant XBB.1.5, which was discovered in the United States October and is more easily transmissible than any of the previously known variants, was a concern across the world.

A spokesman for the German Ministry of Health said on Wednesday that “above all, we are interested in setting up a virus variant monitoring system.” The variants of the coronavirus known from China so far still were the ones also circulating in Germany. “But of course, we would like to know at an early stage whether anything is changing.” According to the German health ministry spokesman, one issue is wastewater testing at airports. This already exists at Frankfurt Airport and could be expanded, for example, by examining the wastewater of individual aircraft.

However, German epidemiologist Klaus Stöhr said that testing travelers from China was not an effective way to curb new virus variants, amid concerns that these may be spreading undetected. “Monitoring is not such a bad idea, it is certainly interesting from a scientific point of view, but in purely practical terms we would then have to see how this variant behaves in the population,” said Stöhr, a former head of the WHO’s influenza program.

“All this takes a certain amount of time and then the variant has already slipped through. Even testing cannot prevent this,” explained Stöhr. He also added that testing would not detect every infected person. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has criticized the fact that several countries already require negative Covid tests for inbound travelers from China.

“It is extremely disappointing to see this knee-jerk reinstatement of measures that have proven ineffective over the last three years,” IATA chief executive Willie Walsh said in Geneva. According to scientific studies, such measures could at best delay the spread of coronavirus variants by a few days.

This article is published Fridays. The content is based on news by agencies participating in the enr.