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U.S. to require negative Covid test for travelers from China as virus spreads

The new policy comes amid a surge in Covid cases in China and as fears of a new variant emerge.

WASHINGTON — Starting Jan. 5, the U.S. will require a pre-departure negative Covid test for anyone flying in from China, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday. The new policy comes amid a surge in Covid cases in China and as fears that a new, concerning variant could emerge.

NBC News reported earlier that the travel requirements were under consideration. Federal health officials said China’s lack of adequate and transparent Covid data — specifically, viral genomic sequence data — led to the decision, making it harder for U.S. public health officials to identify new variants.

The officials said they are waiting until Jan. 5 to give airlines enough time to implement the change and will continue monitoring going forward to decide when to lift the requirement.

The CDC is also increasing the tracking of travelers coming to the U.S. who may have Covid by expanding the Traveler Genomic Surveillance program to include the airports in Seattle and Los Angeles. That brings the number of airports in the program to seven, including John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, San Francisco International Airport, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.

Federal officials expressed concern that China’s past "zero-Covid" policies could lead to a large number of hospitalizations and deaths there now that it has dropped most measures and its population may lack immunity to the currently circulating omicron subvariants. 

The officials said the U.S. has continued to offer its support and assistance to China on Covid, including vaccine doses. China has said publicly that it appreciates the offer, but does not need the support at this time, the officials said.

How testing will work

Travelers to the U.S. must get tested no more than two days before their departure, regardless of their nationality or Covid vaccination status, the CDC said. The requirement applies to all air passengers ages 2 and up departing from China, Hong Kong or Macau.

People who have been to these areas in the last 10 days and are connecting to the U.S. through Incheon International Airport in South Korea or Canada’s Toronto Pearson or Vancouver International airports must also provide a negative Covid test no more than two days before their departure to the U.S.

The U.S. will accept a PCR test or an antigen self-test that is administered and monitored via telehealth and approved by the Food and Drug Administration or equivalent national health authority. Those who recently recovered from Covid (tested positive more than 10 days ago) can also provide proof of recent recovery. It’s up to airlines to deny boarding to people who can’t present proof of negative test or recovery.

Other places instituted similar policies earlier this month. Japan said Tuesday that all travelers from mainland China would be tested on arrival, and Malaysia is stepping up tracking and surveillance of travelers from China.

Taiwan said Wednesday that travelers from mainland China would have to take a PCR test on arrival, with those who test positive allowed to isolate at home. Last week, India said it would make virus testing mandatory for travelers arriving from China as well as Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand. As in Japan, anyone who tests positive will be required to quarantine.

China announced this week that incoming travellers would no longer have to quarantine from January 8, the latest major reversal of strict restrictions that have kept the country largely closed off to the world since the start of the pandemic.
A woman adjusts a child's mask at Beijing international airport on Dec. 29, 2022.Noel Celis / AFP - Getty Images

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Wednesday that all countries should “fight the epidemic in a scientific way, work together to ensure safe travel between countries, maintain stability of global industrial and supply chains, and restore healthy growth of the world economy.”

Wang also said the Covid situation in China was “generally within expectation and under control,” accusing the Western media of smearing China’s anti-Covid efforts while downplaying the earlier pandemic chaos in their own countries.

Earlier this month, China abruptly eased its zero-Covid approach following mass protests, scrapping domestic rules and lifting quarantine requirements for those traveling to the country. The number of cases has subsequently exploded, putting pressure on hospitals and other health care facilities.

The World Health Organization has said it is very concerned about growing reports of severe Covid cases in China and has raised questions about the numbers released by Beijing.

Nevertheless, Dr. Siddharth Sridhar, a clinical virologist at the University of Hong Kong, said the China outbreak poses little threat to countries like the U.S., which has a high level of immunity through infections and vaccinations, and that new requirements for travelers from China were unlikely to be effective.

The omicron variant and its sublineages “always find a way to infiltrate borders and circulate around the globe, even through performative restrictions like PCR testing,” he said.

Though the wave of infections sweeping China’s 1.4 billion population could in theory give rise to a new variant, as when the delta variant emerged in India earlier in the pandemic, “equally there’s every possibility that [the China outbreak] will accelerate the rate at which we start to normalize,” said Dr. David Owens, a founder of OT&P Healthcare in Hong Kong.

“What the U.S. should worry about is getting their own vulnerable vaccinated,” he added.

Josh Lederman reported from Washington, Jennifer Jett from Hong Kong and Aria Bendix from California.