CDC urges Americans to “reconsider” travel to China over COVID surge, will require tests

Travelers from China will need to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding flights to the U.S. starting next week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday. The testing requirement will apply to travelers from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, and covers all passengers regardless of their nationality or vaccination status, the CDC said. 

Americans should also “reconsider travel to China, Hong Kong, and Macau,” the CDC now urges. In a travel alert published Wednesday, the agency cited “reports that the healthcare system is overwhelmed,” along with the risk of new variants.

Beyond masking while traveling in places like airports or planes, the CDC also recommends that Americans visiting China wear masks while indoors in public.

The moves come amid a record wave of infections in China since it relaxed its “zero COVID” policy in early December. The Chinese government has also begun to ease travel restrictions that were imposed years ago, early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“CDC is announcing this step to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the United States during the surge in COVID-19 cases in the [People’s Republic of China] given the lack of adequate and transparent epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data being reported from the PRC,” the CDC said in a statement.

Beginning Jan. 5, airlines will be required to collect proof of a negative COVID-19 test from all passengers ages 2 and older before they can board flights out of China into the U.S.  Both lab-based PCR tests as well as antigen self-tests will be accepted, as long as they are overseen by a health care provider.

Travelers on connecting flights will also be required to provide proof of a negative test. 

People traveling to the U.S. through South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, Canada’s Toronto Pearson International Airport, and Canada’s Vancouver International Airport will be required to test negative if they have been in China over the last 10 days.

“These three transit hubs cover the overwhelming majority of passengers with travel originating in the PRC and the Special Administrative Regions. We will continue to monitor travel patterns, adjust our approach as needed, and keep Americans informed in a timely manner,” the CDC said.

Federal health authorities have not required negative COVID-19 tests from any international visitors since the requirement was scrapped in June. The U.S. continues to require that all foreign travelers prove they are fully vaccinated with the primary series of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Officials said Wednesday that they were waiting until next week to impose the measure to allow for airlines to implement the revived requirements.

“It does take some effort by the airlines to update their data systems to put this all in place. And so we have to make this announcement today, but it will take time to implement the program,” a federal health official told reporters at a briefing.

Officials first acknowledged Tuesday that they were weighing the move, pointing to similar measures put in place on China by Japan and other countries. They also cited China’s own rules for arriving international travelers, which continue to require Americans and other foreign visitors to test negative.

“We’ve always believed that for all countries, COVID response measures need to be science-based and proportionate without affecting normal people-to-people exchange,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters Wednesday ahead of the U.S. announcement.

Concern over COVID variants

In addition to the new requirement, the CDC said it is moving to expand its current variant surveillance efforts to two new international airports in Los Angeles and Seattle.

The agency has already been tracking variants over the past few months spotted in voluntary tests collected from arriving international travelers. Wastewater collected from some aircraft bathrooms are also now being tested for variants, the CDC says.

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A total of some 290 weekly flights from China and nearby countries will be covered by the program once expanded, the CDC said. 

“We have very limited information in public databases about variants that are circulating in China presently. In the past few months, only about a hundred sequences have been uploaded,” said the federal health official. 

They cited the threat the virus could pose as it infects a vast swath of “immunologically naive” people in China.

“What we’re concerned about is a new variant that may emerge actually in China, with so many people in China being infected in a short period of time, there is a chance or probability that a new variant will emerge,” said the official.

Scientists have voiced frustration over sparse variant sequencing released from China amid the country’s current wave of infections, aside from a handful of travelers. 

All of the current variants circulating in China are descendants of Omicron, Chinese state media have reported, quoting their country’s health officials, with BA.5.2 and BF.7 dominating infections in the country. 

What to know about the BF.7 variant

First spotted earlier this year, these two strains have made up a fraction of circulating virus in the U.S. to date. Instead, the CDC’s estimates rank the BQ.1, BQ.1.1, and XBB strains as far outpacing them around the country.

Infections linked to XBB has surged across the Northeast in recent weeks, climbing to more than half of new infections across the region. Ahead of Christmas, federal data shows hospitalizations reaching some of the highest rates since last February in the Northeast.

Scientists believe a descendant dubbed XBB.1.5 is behind the renewed surge, with immune evasive mutations that appear to bind well to human cells. 

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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