EU to drop Covid test requirements targeting travelers from China; Chinese leaders hail “decisive victory” over pandemic

European Union countries will phase out Covid-19 testing for travelers from China in the coming weeks, following a joint decision by health experts from the EU's 27 member states. The measures imposed on January 4 include pre-departure testing for travelers from China, who are also subject to random testing upon arrival. Those two measures will be phased out by the end of February and the middle of March, respectively. According to the Swedish presidency of the EU, member states met to evaluate the measures and agreed on the changes “in light of the recent epidemiological developments and taking into account the opinion of the Health Security Committee”. The moves were also agreed to by non-EU members of the Schengen border-free travel region – Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. Italy had earlier switched its compulsory arrival tests for travelers from China to random swabbing, in a sign that European countries are open to easing restrictions, but pre-departure tests are still required.

More than a dozen countries had imposed measures on travelers from China – including flight bans, in-flight masking and compulsory testing – after Beijing abruptly abandoned its zero-Covid policy in December, resulting in a surge in cases. Ahead of the announcement from the European bloc, China’s Foreign Ministry said it was “glad to see” Chinese tourists boosting the recovery of tourism and economic growth in many countries. Earlier this month China reported a nearly 90% drop in Covid-19 deaths and severe cases among hospital patients after infections peaked in January. Many countries have since reopened their doors to Chinese travelers.

Chinese leaders have hailed a “decisive victory” over the Covid pandemic and called the country’s successful exit from the zero-Covid policy a “miracle”. The conclusion was made public after a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo Standing Committee meeting chaired by General Secretary Xi Jinping. “Since November 2022, we have continued fine-tuning our pandemic control policy and achieved a smooth change of course in Covid control in a relatively short period of time,” CCTV quoted an official read-out of the meeting as saying. “Hence, more than 200 million people have been diagnosed and treated for Covid and nearly 800,000 severe patients received effective treatment, and our fatality rate was the lowest in the world. We have scored an important and decisive victory in our prevention and control of the pandemic, and created a miracle in human history that a major populous country has successfully overcome a spreading pandemic,” the read-out said, adding that the results had proven the leadership’s decision was “totally correct” and had won the “recognition of the people”.

China is now in a temporary immune stage after going through the first infection peak and people will have immunity protection for three to six months if there is no mutation of the coronavirus. Li Tongzeng, Chief Physician with the respiratory and infectious diseases department at Beijing You'an Hospital, said the Covid pandemic has not gone away. “We must keep monitoring the pandemic as we currently have no idea about when the next wave will come and to what extent,” said Li. According to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have been more than 83,000 Covid-19 related deaths in hospitals in the Chinese mainland from December 8 to February 9, but the number of deaths and positive cases has been declining. As for why a second infection peak during the Spring Festival holidays didn't come, Li said that the antibody level was very high among the Chinese public. “People's immunity is strong enough to defeat the virus, which hasn't had much variation,” Li said.

The Chinese CDC said the current strains in China are BA.5.2.48 and BF.7.14. Li said if the virus doesn't have an obvious mutation, its morbidity rate will decline and there will be a weaker impact on the public's health, which means the pandemic situation in China could become more stable. China is unlikely to see a new wave of Covid-19 outbreaks despite confirmation that the highly transmissible XBB.1.5 subvariant has now been found in the community, according to a Chinese medical expert. The variant now accounts for over 80% of cases in the United States, where it has spread rapidly since December. The World Health Organization (WHO) said last month that the strain was “the most transmissible variant that has been detected yet”. Fifteen domestic cases of people infected with Covid-19 variants of concern have been detected in the Chinese mainland since early December, experts said.

The Chinese CDC said that a total of 37,611 people were infected with Covid-19 and being treated in hospitals in the seven-day period ending February 9, including 424 in critical condition. A total of 912 Covid-related deaths were recorded during the period. The Chinese mainland reported more than 80,000 Covid-19-related deaths at hospitals from December 8 to February 9.

The China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp (CASC) and Peking Union Medical College Hospital (PUMCH) jointly announced the release of an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine developed in China and making use of rocket servo technology. China's new ECMO system is smaller in size compared to foreign competitors and is also portable. ECMO is used to treat seriously-ill Covid patients.

This overview is based on reports by the China Daily, Shanghai Daily, Global Times and South China Morning Post.