COVID Is Running Rampant in China, But Experts Say Travel Restrictions Are Pointless

While countries around the world impose restrictions on Chinese travelers, some argue the move is more political than rooted in public health.

HONG KONG - Chinese families reunited and residents headed off on vacations as China finally lifted border controls over the weekend, ending three years of isolation under the country’s stringent zero-COVID policy.

But elsewhere in the world, many countries are responding with far less fanfare and a heavy dose of caution, as the virus runs rampant in China.

More than a dozen countries have introduced different degrees of restrictions on Chinese visitors for fear of an influx of cases. The U.S. and the UK have begun mandating pre-flight tests for Chinese nationals, while South Korea now requires tests upon arrivals. On Thursday, Korean authorities hunted down a Chinese national who fled the airport to evade quarantine after testing positive for COVID. Taking the most extreme measures is Morocco, which banned visitors flying in from China altogether, regardless of their nationality. 


But many experts have questioned the effectiveness of these travel curbs, describing them as outdated and of little use. 

“Travel restrictions are unlikely to have any impact whatsoever on the magnitude of waves outside of China, particularly in places like Europe and the U.S., which have no domestic restrictions for COVID and very high domestic circulation,” Tom Peacock, a virologist at the Imperial College London, told VICE World News. 

“Anything imported from China will be a drop in the ocean, and most likely non-competitive variants compared to growing domestic variants like XBB.1.5,” Peacock added, citing a subvariant of Omicron that is more immune-evasive and the most transmissible strain found to date. Also known as Kraken—named after the mythological sea monster—XBB.1.5 now accounts for 40 percent of the cases in the U.S., and had been identified in more than 25 countries by early January. 

A recent study by researchers in Hong Kong and Australia mapped the emergence of different COVID variants across 58 locations, finding that travel restrictions had a “minimal impact” in slowing or preventing their global spread. Given the limited efficacy of reinstating travel restrictions from a public health perspective, Chinese authorities are calling into question the real motivation behind the move. 

China, which until recently had required foreign arrivals to quarantine for up to weeks, decried the restrictions targeting the country as “discriminatory” and warned it would take countermeasures in retaliation. 


“We do not believe the entry restriction measures some countries have taken against China are science-based. Some of these measures are disproportionate and simply unacceptable,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in a press briefing last week. 

Other countries, however, have blamed the move on Beijing’s lack of transparency surrounding public health. 

The European Union agreed last Wednesday to a coordinated strategy that includes pre-flight testing and wastewater surveillance. A European Commission spokesperson told VICE World News that it’s taking a precautionary approach, given “the scarcity of reliable data on the epidemiological situation in China” to ensure it detects any new threats as early as possible. The measures, which are not mandatory for member states, would be reviewed in mid January, they added.

“The one argument that holds some weight is that China, up until recently, was not openly sharing its sequencing data, so there was a chance [China’s outbreak] could have been driven by a new variant,” Peacock said. 

It’s difficult to assess the severity of the situation in China, as authorities have stopped publishing daily tallies for COVID cases and deaths since late December, and even before then, experts cast doubts on the figures. According to notes leaked from the Chinese National Health Commission, nearly 250 million people were infected in the first 20 days of December alone. 


The outbreak has already overwhelmed hospitals and crematoriums, while cases are expected to grow as millions begin to travel home for the Lunar New Year holiday—the world’s largest annual migration of people. With China’s role as the world’s largest manufacturing hub, there are concerns regarding the impact of a worsening domestic outbreak on the global economy. More concerning for some, however, is the risk of a new variant emerging that is immune-evasive and could cause severe illness even among vaccinated groups. 

The emergence of such a variant could put the world “back to square one,” Peter McIntyre, former director of Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, told VICE World News. 

“If that was to occur, we would need to fall back on the non-vaccine measures like travel restrictions, masking, social distancing, perhaps even lockdowns, until a suitable vaccine was available and could be rolled out.” 

But the probability of this happening is low, McIntyre added. 

The WHO confirmed last week that BA.5.2 and BF.7—two known variants that have been circulating in other countries—together accounted for 97.5% of all local infections in China. No new variant has been reported, according to genomic data provided by Chinese authorities, which is also corroborated by the sequencing of Chinese travelers in countries such as Japan and Singapore. 


“The politics [surrounding travel restrictions] are mainly about China's lack of transparency, which is indeed a problem,” McIntyre said. “It beggars belief that the number of cases of severe disease are as low as reported.”

China has reported only 32,792 deaths since the pandemic began, a major underestimate according to the WHO. McIntyre said China is masking the toll to maintain the illusion its pandemic measures have been successful and all is under control. 

“They are doing themselves and the world no favors by this.”

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