Global health officials in the United States worry about China’s transparency about the spread of the virus

People receive the inhaled COVID-19 vaccine at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Bijie, Guizhou province, China, on December 29, 2022.

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US and global health leaders say Beijing is not sharing enough information about the spread of Covid-19 in China, leaving the international community in the dark about the scale and severity of the current wave of infection in the country most populous in the world

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in a statement on Wednesday, said China’s lack of transparency could delay the identification of new variants of Covid that pose a threat to public health. According to the CDC, China shares very few genomic sequences used to identify these variants.

The CDC announced new testing requirements for airline passengers whose trips originate in China on Wednesday. All passengers, regardless of nationality or vaccination status, must be tested for Covid no more than two days before their flight to the US and present a negative result to the airline prior to departure. The requirements take effect in January. 5.

India, Italy, Japan and Taiwan have also imposed Covid testing requirements on airline passengers originating in China. The Chinese government is battling a surge in infections after easing its strict zero-Covid policy in the wake of social unrest earlier this year.

A US federal health official, in a call with reporters on Wednesday, said the Biden administration has very limited information on the number of new Covid cases, hospitalizations and particularly deaths in China. Testing and reporting of cases has also declined in the country, making the actual infection rate difficult to determine, the official said.

China’s zero-Covid policy, which sought to crush outbreaks through severe measures, means that a large part of the population has no immunity to the highly transmissible omicron variants, the official said. As a result, the Biden administration anticipates that large numbers of people will become infected relatively quickly in China.

“What we are concerned about is a new variant that may actually emerge in China,” said the official, who declined to be named as a condition of the press call. “With so many people in China affected in a short period of time, there is a possibility, a probability that a new variant could emerge.”

The latest genomic sequencing data shared by health authorities in China indicate that the Covid variants circulating in the country are similar to those known in the rest of the world, according to a statement this week from GISAID, a public database based in in Germany

In the past 180 days, China has sequenced and shared 412 Covid cases with GISAID, compared to more than 576,000 shared by US health authorities in China, which shared less than 1% of Covid cases reported and sequenced, while the US has shared more than 4% and the UK almost 12%.

The World Health Organization has also asked China to share more information about what is happening on the ground as the virus spreads.

“The WHO is very concerned about the development of the situation in China with the increase in reports of serious diseases,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the world health agency, during a press conference in Geneva last week.

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“In order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation on the ground, WHO needs more detailed information on the severity of the disease, hospital admissions and requirements for ICU support,” Tedros said.

According to Dr. Mike Ryan, head of the global health agency’s emergencies program.

“We don’t have a full understanding of the impact,” Ryan said of the Covid wave in China during a news conference in Geneva last week.

Dr. Maria van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for Covid, said last week that omicron subvariants BA.5, BQ.1, BF.7 and BA.2.75 are circulating in China. XBB has also been detected in China, which is one of the most immune evasive variants to date.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, in a report published in December. 15, said a massive wave of infections in China is inevitable as Beijing relaxes its zero-Covid policy. There will be a large number of serious diseases in the elderly population and the death toll will be considerable, according to the report.

China faces a difficult situation because its domestically developed vaccines are not as effective as Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA injections. Vaccine coverage among the elderly population in China also lags behind other countries.

“One in seven people on the planet lives in China, and the acceleration of vaccination, the protection of the health system during this period, is in the interest of seven out of seven people on this planet,” Ryan said.

The United States has offered China Covid mRNA vaccines and other support, but Beijing has rejected the offer, the federal health official said on the call Wednesday.

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