Several countries require travelers from China to be tested as number of cases rises exponentially

In a New Year's address, President Xi Jinping assured the nation that the “light of hope is right in front” of China as it battles Covid-19 and called for unity and perseverance in this “new stage” of pandemic control. He spoke about a week before China is planning to fully reopen the borders and abolish Covid controls for incoming passengers on January 8. “At present, pandemic prevention and control has entered a new stage. Everyone is holding on with great fortitude. With extraordinary efforts, China has prevailed over unprecedented difficulties and challenges, and it has not been an easy journey for anyone,” Xi said. He also defended the country’s policies on fighting the virus. “Following a science-based and targeted approach, we have adapted our Covid response in light of the evolving situation to protect the life and health of the people to the greatest extent possible,” he said. President Xi also assured the world that China will not close its doors. “Today’s China is a country closely linked with the world,” he said, adding that China “cherishes peace and development and values friends and partners as always”.

As the number of Covid cases in China is rising exponentially, several countries have introduced requirements for travelers from China to be tested before boarding their flights or upon arrival at the destination. Countries requiring Covid tests for passengers arriving from China include the U.S., Italy, France, the UK, Israel and Japan. But the European Union’s infectious disease agency (ECDC) said it believed introducing mandatory Covid screenings for travelers from China was “unjustified”. Germany said it did not currently see the need to impose entry restrictions either, but argued for a coordinated EU-wide system to monitor variants at European airports. Morocco on the other hand banned all passengers arriving from China, regardless of nationality.

Chinese Customs announced that it would revoke anti-Covid-19 measures, including nucleic acid testing, at ports of entry for all imported cold-chain foods and non-cold-chain items, effective January 8, when the country is to downgrade Covid-19 to Class B management.

The World Health Organization (WHO) urged China’s health officials to regularly share specific and real-time information regarding the Covid-19 situation in the country, including more genetic sequencing data and data on hospitalizations and deaths. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the WHO needed more information to assess the latest surge in infections in China. Zeng Guang, former Chief Epidemiologist of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told an online forum that although accurate statistics were still lacking, probably over 80% of the population in Beijing had been infected with Covid and the percentage could be higher. Beijing called for infected medical workers and those with mild symptoms to continue working and asked medical workers who had retired within the last five years to return to work.

China's health authorities say no new Covid variants have been detected so far in the country. “Since the beginning of December, nine subvariants of the virus have been detected in China, all of which belong to the Omicron strain,” Xu Wenbo, Director of the National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention, said. Since the beginning of December, the China CDC has completed the whole genome sequencing of 1,142 cases through a sampling survey and found that the Omicron subvariants BA.5.2 and BF.7 were the dominant strains, accounting for more than 80% of the total, said Xu. There are also seven other subvariants of Omicron circulating. No genomic mutation was found in these subvariants, which were all imported. In December, a total of 31 Omicron subvariants were found to have been imported into China, including BQ.1, XBB and other subvariants that spread rapidly overseas, said Xu.

Following the announced lifting of quarantine and testing requirements for passengers arriving from abroad, bookings on travel platforms have skyrocketed after three years of limited outbound trips due to the pandemic. Tourism industry insiders are expecting a surge in outbound travel during the upcoming Spring Festival holidays and a more pronounced rebound during the May Day holidays. The National Immigration Administration (NIA) also announced it will resume passport and visa application services starting on January 8. But travel industry experts said it would take time for more international flights to become available. On December 21, Air France announced that the frequency on the Shanghai-Paris route will increase to three flights a week starting from February 4, 2023. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines said on December 19 that it will add three flights per week on routes between the Netherlands and China, including two flights between Amsterdam and Shanghai every week and one flight between Amsterdam and Hangzhou. These flights will start operating from January 30, 2023.

According to new research, a Chinese antiviral drug known as VV116 is just as effective as Pfizer’s Paxlovid in easing moderate to mild Covid-10 symptoms. Patients who took the pill recovered after a median time of four days, compared with five for those who took Paxlovid. The researchers also found that the incidence of adverse events was lower in the VV116 group compared to the Paxlovid group. However, while Paxlovid has already been shown to be 88% successful in reducing hospitalization or death among high-risk unvaccinated individuals, the efficacy of VV116 in reducing severe symptoms could not be determined. VV116 is a derivative of Gilead Sciences’ Remdesivir, the first antiviral drug approved by U.S. regulators for the treatment of Covid-19. The pill was jointly developed by Chinese drug makers Junshi Biosciences and Vigonvital Life Science, and other research institutes under the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

China has also green lighted the conditional import of antiviral molnupiravir, known by the brand name Lagevrio, developed by U.S. pharmaceutical firm Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) for urgent use of Covid-19 treatment, the National Medical Products Administration said. In September, China's Sinopharm and MSD signed a cooperation framework agreement under which Sinopharm would be a dealer and exclusive commission agent of MSD's antiviral Covid-19 medicine in China. Molnupiravir and Pfizer's Paxlovid are the two most used oral Covid-19 treatments.

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