The Chinese government has promised to stop using anal swabs on American diplomats to test for COVID-19 after Washington complained that the practice was undignified, the U.S. State Department said.
“The State Department never agreed to this kind of testing and protested directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when we learned that some staff were subject to it,” a State Department spokesperson told VICE World News on Wednesday.
The spokesperson said Beijing had assured Washington that the test was given “in error” and that diplomatic personnel were exempt from the test, which was mandatory for incoming travelers in some parts of China.
“We have instructed staff to decline this test if it is asked of them, as was done in the past.”
On Thursday afternoon, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied Beijing had asked U.S. diplomats in China to undergo anal swab tests.
Some Chinese regions have been ordering anal swabs for people under quarantine, including those who arrived from abroad. Authorities say the tests can avoid missing infections.
It’s not clear how many U.S. diplomats or their family members have gone through the tests.
The State Department spokesperson said it is committed to preserving the “dignity” of American diplomats and their families, consistent with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and other diplomatic law provisions.
In an online post earlier in February, China’s National Health Commission said in some cases, the coronavirus can be more readily detected in anal samples than in throat and nasal samples. But it acknowledged rectal swabs are not suitable for mass use because they are inconvenient and unpopular.
According to the commission’s instructions, the anal samples are collected by inserting a cotton swab three to five centimeters (about one to two inches) into the rectum.
Reports about anal COVID-19 testing prompted a wave of panic on Chinese social media last month. A traveler from Australia to China who was given anal swabs in September told VICE World News it felt like having diarrhea.
China has largely contained the pandemic; only a handful of cases are reported daily across the country of 1.4 billion people. Its relatively early recovery helped its film industry break records earlier this month during the Lunar New Year holiday, but the authorities remain wary of foreign visitors who could bring new outbreaks.
This story has been updated with comments from the Chinese foreign ministry.
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