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Covid travel curbs on China are pointless, says vaccine chief

Restrictions on travellers from China are likely to be pointless, Britain’s vaccine chief has said as Spain became the latest country to impose Covid tests on arrivals from the country.

European public health chiefs also said that border measures were “unjustified” because the continent is well protected and there is no sign of a new variant.

But China’s former chief epidemiologist said Covid-19 is spreading there at a speed faster than expected, as European countries split on how to deal with the surge.

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Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, chairman of the UK joint committee on vaccination and immunisation, cautioned against a rush to border measures.

“Trying to ban a virus by adjusting what we do with travel has already been shown not to work very well. We have seen that with the bans on travel from various countries during the pandemic,” he told Today on BBC Radio 4.

He said that the surge in cases in China as it abandoned its zero-Covid policy did increase the risk of a new variant, but pointed out: “The likelihood of variants emerging there is the same as it is in other places where there are Covid waves. And the variants that emerge in China are ones that are going to be best adapted to spread in a Chinese population, which compared with countries like the UK is much less Covid-experienced.”

Pollard pointed out that during the pandemic worrying variants had emerged in South Africa and Brazil which “didn’t spread to the UK at all. And I’m sure that will have been related to differences in the immune experience of the different populations.”

He added therefore: “Testing people travelling from China probably doesn’t really answer the question about whether any new variant that is detected is going to be a problem here.”

Britain, France, Germany and other European nations have so far insisted there is no need for travel checks to be re-imposed, as have Australia and Thailand.

They were backed by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, which said it “currently does not recommend screenings and travel measures on travellers from China”.

The agency said that given high immunity in Europe “a surge in cases in China is not expected to impact the Covid-19 epidemiological situation in the EU/EEA”, adding: “The variants circulating in China are already circulating in the EU, and as such are not challenging for the immune response of [Europeans].”

Zeng Guang, a former chief epidemiologist at China’s centre for disease prevention and control, said that “we didn’t expect the first wave to be this vehement”, in a candid acknowledgement of the effect of lifting President Xi’s “zero-tolerance” pandemic policy this month.

Zeng said that since relaxing previously strict controls, the rate of Covid infections quickly exceeded 50 per cent of the population in many urban areas before rising further. In the capital Beijing 80 per cent of the population may have been affected — equivalent to 17 million people — he added.

Zeng’s comments came as Spain said it would join Italy, the United States, India, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea in re-introducing pandemic control measures for visitors from China in anticipation of a surge in travellers from next week.

Those arriving in Spain from China must provide a recent negative test or prove they have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, the health minister Carolina Darias said today.

Chinese state media condemned such travel curbs as “discriminatory”. The Communist Party-run Global Times wrote: “The real intention is to sabotage China’s three years of Covid-19 control efforts and attack the country’s system.”

While most people infected in China are suffering from only minor illness due to the prevalent Omicron strain, widespread evidence and testimonies suggests hospitals are crowded with seriously ill patients, while many are dying from complications.

The rapid spread of Covid-19 among China’s population of 1.4 billion has raised fears that a new strain could emerge there and pose risks for other countries.

Airfinity, a UK-based health data company, estimates that about 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day with Covid-19, nearly doubling its estimate from a week ago.

Chinese officials have placed strict controls on listing Covid as a cause of death, however, and grieving relatives are reportedly being told to sign disclaimers excluding the virus before they can cremate their loved ones.

By Airfinity’s latest estimates, Covid-19 infections may peak on January 13 with 3.7 million cases a day, and deaths may peak on January 23, one day after the Chinese New Year holiday, with up to 25,000 a day. The country may have a total of 1.7 million virus-related deaths by the end of April, the predictions suggest.

Officially, China reported 5,515 infections overnight and one Covid death. Since December 7, when China abandoned the zero-Covid policy and scrapped most restrictions, the official death toll has been only 12, bringing the total to just 5,247 since the start of the pandemic.

When asked if China has underestimated the number of deaths, Liang Wannian, a top doctor who leads the national efforts against the pandemic, said yesterday that it was difficult to precisely know the mortalities but said the country should have a better gauge after the pandemic cycle ends. “At this point, the priority is to prevent severe cases and prevent deaths,” Liang said.

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