South Korea to require Covid-19 tests for HK, Macau travellers; new Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 detected

Travellers to South Korea from Hong Kong and Macau would be required to submit a negative result from a PCR test from Jan 7, 2023. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SEOUL - South Korea’s health authorities said on Tuesday it will impose mandatory Covid-19 tests on travellers from Hong Kong and Macau, after Beijing’s decision to lift stringent zero-Covid policies.

Effective Jan 7, travellers from Hong Kong and Macau would be required to submit a negative result from a PCR test, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).

The decision comes after South Korea announced it will require travellers from China to take Covid-19 tests before departure and upon arrival in South Korea, joining the United States, Japan and other countries in taking new border measures amid concerns over a new wave of infections and mutations.

On Monday, authorities confirmed that the Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, which has spread rapidly within the US, already arrived in South Korea last month, raising concerns over the spread of the strain believed to have resistance against updated vaccines.

“XBB.1.5 variant has been detected in the country on Dec 8, 2022. So far, a total of 13 XBB.1.5 cases have been confirmed, including six cases in Korea and seven cases from overseas,” the KDCA said.

That XBB, a recombinant of the BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75 sublineages, entered South Korea in October last year was confirmed earlier, but XBB.1.5 cases had not been counted.

XBB.1.5 is a subvariant of XBB, which was derived from BA.2, known as “stealth Omicron”. As one of the most recent Omicron subvariants, XBB.1.5 has recently spread at an alarming rate in the US with its high ability to evade immunity.

According to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday, the XBB.1.5 subvariant accounted for 21.7 per cent of all Covid-19 infections there as of Dec 24, and then nearly doubled in a week to reach 40.5 per cent of total Covid-19 cases as of Saturday.

The KDCA said that as of Dec 24, only 5.7 per cent of the Covid-19 cases in South Korea were of subvariants, including XBB.1.5, but there is a possibility that XBB.1.5 will become dominant within a short period, as it has in the US.

Concerns are growing as researchers at Columbia University recently announced that XBB subvariants have resistance against updated vaccines as well as Evusheld, a monoclonal treatment for Covid-19.

On Monday, which was the first day of strengthened quarantine measures for entrants from China, 61 out of 309 short-term visiting foreigners who came from China have tested positive. The government has prepared quarantine facilities that can accommodate up to 100 people, and plans to secure additional spare facilities in Seoul, Gyeonggi Province and Incheon.

The number of new Covid-19 cases in South Korea as announced on Tuesday for the 24 hours of Monday was 81,056, breaching 80,000 on the day for four weeks in a row. The number of critically ill patients was 620, exceeding 600 for three consecutive days. The day’s death toll was 29. REUTERS, THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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