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Lack of information about COVID-19 outbreak in China sparks global concern

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BEIJING (AP) – Actions by several countries to require COVID-19 tests for passengers arriving from China reflect global concern that new variants could emerge in its ongoing explosive outbreak – and that the government may not inform the rest of the world quickly enough.

There have been no reports of new variants so far, but China has been accused of not disclosing the virus since it first appeared in the country in late 2019. The concern is that it is not sharing data now on any signs of evolution. strains that can trigger new outbreaks elsewhere.

The US, Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Italy have announced testing requirements for passengers from China. The USA cited both the increase in infections and what was said to be a lack of information, including the genomic sequencing of virus strains in the country.

Authorities in Taiwan and Japan expressed similar concern.

“At present, the pandemic situation in China is not transparent,” Wang Pi-Sheng, head of Taiwan’s epidemic command center, told The Associated Press. “We have a very limited understanding of your information and it’s not very accurate.”

The island will begin testing everyone arriving from China on Jan. 1, ahead of an expected return of around 30,000 Taiwanese for the Lunar New Year holiday later in the month. New Japanese rules, which restrict flights from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau to designated airports from Friday, are already derailing holiday travel plans.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin noted on Thursday that many countries have not changed their policies for travelers from China and said any measures must treat people from all countries equally.

Each new infection offers a chance for the coronavirus to mutate and is spreading rapidly in China. Scientists can’t say if this means the outbreak will unleash a new mutant on the world – but they fear it could.

Chinese health officials have said the current outbreak is being driven by versions of the omicron variant that have also been detected elsewhere, and a surveillance system has been set up to identify any potentially worrisome new versions of the virus. Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the China Center for Disease Control, said on Thursday that China has always reported the virus strains it has found in a timely manner.

“We don’t keep anything a secret,” he said. “Every work is shared with the world.”

Italy’s health minister told the Senate that the sequencing indicates that the variants detected in passengers arriving from China are already in circulation in Europe. “This is the most important and comforting news,” said Orazio Schillaci.

This is in line with what the executive branch of the European Union has said. The EU refrained on Thursday from immediately following member Italy in requiring testing for visitors from China, but is assessing the situation.

More broadly, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the body needs more information on the severity of the outbreak in China, particularly on admissions to hospitals and ICUs, “in order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation on the ground”.

China rolled back many of its tough pandemic restrictions earlier this month, allowing the virus to spread rapidly in a country that had seen relatively few infections since a devastating initial outbreak in the city of Wuhan. Spiraling infections have led to cold medicine shortages, long lines at fever clinics and emergency rooms at full capacity turning away patients. Cremations have spiked several times, with a call from overwhelmed funeral homes in one city for families to postpone funeral services until next month.

Chinese state media did not widely report the fallout from the surge, and government officials blamed Western media for exaggerating the situation.

The global concerns, tinged with anger, are a direct result of the Communist Party’s sudden departure from some of the world’s strictest anti-virus policies, said Miles Yu, director of the China Center at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

“You cannot conduct the madness of ‘covid-zero’ lockdowns for such a long period of time… and then suddenly release a multitude of infected from a caged China into the world’, risking major outbreaks elsewhere,” he said. Yu in an email.

The Doctor. David Dowdy, an infectious disease expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the US move may be more about increasing pressure on China to share more information than preventing a new variant from entering the country.

China has been accused of masking the virus situation in the country before. An investigation by the AP found that the government had been waiting for the release of genetic information about the virus for more than a week after decoding it, frustrating WHO officials.

The government also tightly controlled the dissemination of Chinese research on the virus, preventing cooperation with international scientists.

Research into the origins of the virus was also blocked. A group of WHO experts said in a report this year that “key pieces of data” were missing about how the pandemic started and required further investigation.


Wu reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Associated Press journalists Geir Moulson in Berlin, Colleen Barry in Milan, Carla K. Johnson in Seattle and Kanis Leung in Hong Kong, and video producer Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed.