The World Health Organization is urging Chinese health officials to share more detailed and timely information on the COVID-19 situation in the country amid concerns from a number of countries about a lack of transparency from Beijing.
In a high-level meeting with officials from China’s National Health Commission and the National Disease Control and Prevention Administration Friday, WHO was briefed on China’s evolving strategy in dealing with the significant surge of infections that have been sweeping across the country following the sudden rollback of the nation’s strict anti-virus controls.
WHO says it once again encouraged China to regularly share specific and real-time data on the epidemiological situation in the country, including sharing more genetic sequencing data and information on disease impact, including hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths, according to a statement Friday.
“WHO stressed the importance of monitoring and the timely publication of data to help China and the global community to formulate accurate risk assessments and to inform effective responses,” the UN agency said in its statement.
The meeting comes as a number of countries have begun imposing tougher COVID-19 measures for passengers arriving from China.
The United States announced new rules Thursday requiring travellers from China, Hong Kong and Macau to take a COVID-19 test no more than two days before travel and provide a negative test before boarding their flight. The testing applies to anyone two years of age and older, including U.S. citizens.
It will apply to people traveling from China via a third country and to people connecting through the U.S. as they go on to other destinations.
Japan, France, Spain, India, South Korea, Taiwan and Italy have also imposed rules requiring negative tests from travellers from China, and France is advising its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China.
France is also reintroducing mask requirements on flights from China to France and has joined Spain in pushing for a Europe-wide testing policy.
The U.S. said it was imposing its measures due to the surge in infections and what it said was a lack of information, including genomic sequencing of the virus strains in China. Authorities in Taiwan and Japan have expressed similar concerns.
Canada has chosen to take a wait-and-see approach, with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) saying it “continues to monitor and assess the global epidemiology of COVID-19” and that the federal government “will not hesitate to put in place additional protective measures for the health and safety of Canadians should it be required.”
“PHAC is also closely monitoring the COVID-19 situation in China including genomic sequencing data and the potential impacts of circulating variants on public health,” Mark Johnson, a spokesperson for Health Canada and PHAC, said in a statement to Global News.
Johnson noted information that is available from China to date on the variants currently circulating in that country indicate that a sublineage of the BA.5 strain known as BF.7 (which is short for BA.18.104.22.168) has been spreading in China.
The BA.5 strain is a subvariant of the Omicron, which became the dominant strain circulating in Canada through the summer and early fall.
But in recent weeks, genetic sequencing data on SARS-CoV-2 viruses in Canada shows continuing increases in immune-evasive variants, notably BQ.1 and BQ1.1, while the previously dominant BA.5 variants are declining, according to a statement from PHAC provided to Global News last week.
The strain of the virus currently circulating in China — known as BF.7 — was estimated to only make up about five to eight per cent of positive cases in Canada as of Dec. 17, Johnson said.
And that growth rate is declining.
“Its estimated growth rate has slowed to less than three per cent per day over other BA.5 sub-lineages,” he said.
“Under current Canadian conditions, BQ lineages of Omicron are more capable of spreading quickly than BF.7.”
Currently, Canada has a ‘level two’ travel health notice for COVID-19 in place for travel to all countries, advising travellers to voluntarily “practice enhanced health precautions.” This could include using personal protective equipment, getting vaccine boosters and delaying travel until the risk is lower.
In light of the surge of COVID-19 cases in China, Canada issued a separate level two travel health notice for Chinese New Year, which begins Jan. 22 and is usually China’s busiest travel season.
Meanwhile, concerns from multiple countries about a lack of robust information about the monitoring and sequencing of variants spreading in China have raised concerns about the possibility that a new variant of concern could emerge and change the global pandemic situation.
Every new infection offers a chance for the coronavirus to mutate, and it is spreading rapidly in China. Scientists can’t say whether that means the surge will unleash a new mutant on the world – but they worry that might happen.
German Health Ministry spokesperson Sebastian Guelde said authorities there have “no indication that a more dangerous variant has developed in this outbreak in China,” but they are monitoring the situation.
The European Union is also assessing the situation, though its executive branch noted that a prevalent variant in China is already active in Europe.
During its meeting with Chinese officials on Friday, the WHO called on China to strengthen viral sequencing, clinical management and impact assessment of the virus.
The UN agency also asked China to engage more closely in WHO-led COVID-19 expert networks and offered support in these efforts, including support for “risk communications on vaccination to counter hesitancy.”
WHO has invited Chinese scientists to present detailed data on viral sequencing at a meeting of the agency’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution on Jan.3.
— with files from The Associated Press
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