Europe’s hot mess response to China’s Covid surge

Europe’s hot mess response to China’s Covid surge

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Pandemic politics is back. 

Three years into the COVID-19 crisis, which upended lives across the globe and led the EU to promise to work better together when the next health crisis emerged, countries have once again been involved in a political tug-of-war.

China’s decision to lift its zero-COVID policy has led to a surge in cases that has alarmed the world. But early attempts at a joint EU response were dashed when Italy announced its own border control measures on arrivals from China. 

While the EU is now inching toward a coordinated approach on travel measures for arrivals from China — including pre-departure testing, masks on flights and testing wastewater for possible new variants — and is set to hold a meeting of its crisis response body on Wednesday, it comes after countries one-by-one announced unilateral measures for travelers arriving from China.

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“It is disappointing to me that — despite three years of pandemic — there still is not a coordinated EU united response,” said Marion Koopmans, head of the Erasmus MC’s department of viroscience. 

So why did European unity fall at the first hurdle? Here’s what you need to know.

What measures are in place for arrivals from China?

Here’s a brief rundown of a fast-moving situation. Most countries have announced some form of testing, with Italy testing travelers arriving from China and isolating those that are positive. Spain is testing and carrying out temperature checks, and from Tuesday, imposing COVID certificates, and France requires negative tests before traveling from China, masks on planes and PCR tests on arrival for all passengers.

Sweden became the latest EU country to announce plans to implement restrictions, saying Tuesday that it was “preparing to introduce travel restrictions requiring a negative COVID-19 test for entry to Sweden from China.” 

Across the Channel, the U.K. announced Friday it would require a negative test before travel and would also be taking samples from arrivals. 

Belgium, however, has taken a different tack, testing the wastewater from planes twice a week and sequencing the samples to search for new variants.

All this could change on Wednesday, however, with the EU’s crisis response body meeting to discuss (finally) a coordinated response.

Europe’s hot mess response to China’s Covid surge
A Chinese traveler leaves the arrival hall of Rome Fiumicino airport on December 29, 2022 after being tested for COVID-19 | Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images

Why the different responses?

There are multiple factors at play — bitter experience, fear of new variants, concerns about China’s secrecy, and good old economics.

Italy, the first to strike out alone, has said its rules will ensure “surveillance and identification of any variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population.” This decision seems to be driven by the psychology that Italy was hit incredibly hard by COVID-19 in 2020, said Elizabeth Kuiper, associate director and head of the social Europe and well-being program at the European Policy Centre think tank. 

France has justified its decision by saying the government has taken “health control measures in order to ensure the protection of the French population.” As well as testing, they will also be sequencing positive test results to screen for new variants, according to the prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, potentially belying a mistrust of information coming out of China.

Over in the U.K., the government has no qualms about saying its decision is due to the “lack of comprehensive health information shared by China.” The health ministry said that if there is an improvement in the sharing of information and greater transparency “then temporary measures will be reviewed.”

Others have held back. For Austria, which has so far resisted pressure from countries like Italy to coalesce around bloc-wide travel measures, any restriction on China arrivals would be a massive blow. The Austrian government has said that China’s reopening “heralds the return of the most important Asian source market for the coming tourism seasons.” 

This is “a clear example of how countries are trying to balance the economic consequences of COVID and public health concerns,” said Kuiper. 

Didn’t EU countries agree to work together? 

One of Europe’s key lessons from the pandemic was supposed to have been to respond collectively to health threats. It was so important to countries that the EU Health Union was established. But the disagreements over China show that the “default to knee-jerk national responses hasn’t entirely gone away,” said Paul Belcher, consultant in European public health and adviser to the European Public Health Alliance. 

This disorderly response has raised questions over whether EU coordination has taken the right form. A central part of the EU Health Union is the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), which was established precisely to enable Europe to respond quickly and appropriately during a health crisis. But it sits within the European Commission rather than independently — which has tied its hands somewhat, argued the European Policy Centre’s Kuiper.

“If HERA would have been an independent agency, they could have taken a stronger EU position concerning the need for travel restrictions for passengers coming from China,” Kuiper said. Without this leadership, countries have taken measures based on national motivations, she said. 

Can we believe Chinese data?

Europe’s hot mess response to China’s Covid surge
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that in order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation on the ground the WHO “needs more detailed information” | Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Concerns about China’s transparency on COVID-19 are nothing new but as the country opens its borders, even the World Health Organization, which usually declines to point the finger at specific countries, has called for more information. 

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said that in order to make a comprehensive risk assessment of the situation on the ground the WHO “needs more detailed information.”

What China is doing is sharing genetic sequence data on the international database GISAID, “which is laudable,” said David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “But they are not sharing the epidemiological data that will help understand the transmissibility and virulence that goes along with each sequence information and thus leaving a gap in our understanding,” he said.

Meanwhile, China isn’t pleased with the global response. “Some countries have implemented entry restrictions targeting only Chinese travelers. This has no scientific basis, and some practices are unacceptable,” a spokesperson said.

What does the science say?

“There is no scientific consensus on what to do, whether it makes sense to test everyone at arrival or not,” said Steven Van Gucht, head of the scientific service of viral diseases at the Belgian national institute for public and animal health. “The current discussion is a mixture of the scientific debate, but it’s also political.”

One of the major concerns is that new variants could emerge from China. Some scientists say this is unlikely as China is behind the curve on new variants. “Because China’s variants have been and gone in the rest of the world, the threat of these viruses coming back out of China and causing waves is pretty unlikely,” said virologist Tom Peacock of Imperial College, London. Initial sequencing out of Italy has indicated that there were no new COVID variants among Chinese visitors.

Koopmans said that — based on what has been shared so far — the variants circulating in China are not so different from what’s being seen in other parts of the world, but “there are no reasons to assume they are ‘less fit.’”

However, if a new variant did emerge, it’s unlikely travel restrictions would completely stop the spread. For Koopmans, travel restrictions “in the past have shown they are not very effective at delaying transmission of variants.”

One way of quickly spotting the arrival of new variants without targeting individual passengers is to test wastewater from toilets on airplanes or at airports, something that European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has called for — and which is on the table for Wednesday’s meeting.

Additional reporting from Barbara Moens.

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