China on alert for new Covid-19 variant as borders reopen ahead of Spring Festival

China is set to reopen its borders after reversing its zero-Covid policy in December. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING – China will monitor travellers at some of its border crossings for signs of infection from a new Covid-19 variant ahead of “chun yun”, the 40-day period of Chinese New Year travel known as the world’s largest human migration.

A selected group of cities and harbours have been asked to send test samples of infected travellers for genome sequencing at the National Institute for Viral Disease Control and Prevention, according to an updated Covid-19 control plan released on Saturday.

China, which is going through a major wave of infections after dismantling its stringent zero-Covid policy in recent weeks, has yet to report any domestic cases of XBB.1.5, a descendant of the Omicron XBB subvariant that has now become the dominant strain in the United States.

But health agencies across the world, including the World Health Organisation, have raised concern that China has not been providing enough genome-sequencing information to come to any definitive conclusions.

China is set to reopen its borders after reversing its zero-Covid policy in December. The government has reduced quarantine for travellers, who under new guidelines can enter with a negative Covid-19 test result taken within 48 hours of departure.

China has yet to set a timeline for ending the pre-travel testing requirement.

It will urge customs officials to test goods being exported to ease concerns of transmissions through international shipments, healthcare official Liang Wannian told ambassadors and diplomats from 130 countries at a Friday briefing.

The Ministry of Transport announced on Saturday that it will allow crews of international voyage ships to change shifts at ports or land with no need for pre-approval from Jan 8. It will also scrap Covid-19 testing and centralised quarantine requirements upon arrival.

China’s total confirmed death toll from Covid-19 rose to almost 17,500, but there are concerns that the numbers are under-reported after the government adopted a much narrower definition for deaths from the virus.

The National Health Commission reiterated on Saturday that it will urge local governments to refrain from taking extreme lockdown measures over Covid-19, but mobility curbs can be reimposed to prevent massive outbreaks.

Local governments can order their schools to go online, impose work-from-home rules, cancel unnecessary public events and close entertainment venues in cases of emergency.

The commission pledged increased efforts to monitor conditions in care homes to protect the more vulnerable elderly residents. People aged 60 and above are encouraged to get second booster vaccinations.

At a Saturday media briefing, health officials stressed the need to step up Covid-19 prevention and treatment in rural areas as the Spring Festival approaches.

Mr Mi Feng, a spokesman for the NHC, pledged to boost support for hospitals in rural areas and accelerate vaccination among the elderly in villages.

Almost 99 per cent of township hospitals and health centres in local communities have set up fever clinics now, Mr Nie Chunlei, an NHC official, said.

The authorities have formed a group to coordinate nationwide medical supplies, he said, adding priority will be given to ensure rural hospitals have enough medicine. BLOOMBERG

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