U.S. to require negative COVID-19 test for travellers from China — but Canada not changing policy yet

The U.S. announced new COVID-19 testing requirements Wednesday for all travellers from China, joining other nations that have imposed restrictions because of a surge of infections.

Government says it is monitoring the situation, but not imposing new rules yet

View seen inside a big blue tent that has a sign with Chinese-language characters and a white medical mask on it.
A waiting area outside a hospital in Zhuozhou city in northern China's Hebei province on Dec. 21. The U.S. has joined other countries that will require a negative COVID-19 test for travellers from China as an outbreak of the virus surges following the easing of pandemic-related restrictions. (The Associated Press)

The U.S. announced new COVID-19 testing requirements Wednesday for all travellers from China, joining other nations that have imposed restrictions because of a surge of infections.

Beginning Jan. 5, all travellers to the U.S. from China will be required 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 and older.

Canada has not imposed any new testing requirements for people coming from China.

Ellen Kennedy, a spokesperson for Transport Minister Omar Alghabra, said Canada is monitoring COVID-19 case numbers and following the advice of public health officials. 

"As of now, travellers are not required to provide a COVID-19 test upon arrival in Canada, however we continue to monitor the situation and keep Canadians safe," Kennedy said in an email to CBC News. 

Concerns over possibility of new variants

In a statement explaining the testing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cited the surge in infections and what it said was a lack of adequate and transparent information from China, including genomic sequencing on the viral strains circulating in the country.

"These data are critical to monitor the case surge effectively and decrease the chance for entry of a novel variant of concern," the CDC said.

Some scientists are worried the COVID-19 surge in China could unleash a new coronavirus variant on the world that may or may not be similar to the ones circulating now. That's because every infection is another chance for the virus to mutate.

"What we want to avoid is having a variant enter into the U.S. and spread like we saw with delta or omicron," said Matthew Binnicker, director of clinical virology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

But the CDC's action may be less about stopping a new variant from crossing U.S. borders and more about increasing pressure on China to share more information, said Dr. David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, adding he hopes the restrictions "aren't kept in place longer than they need to be."

"I don't think it's going to have a major impact in slowing the spread of COVID-19," Dowdy said. "We have a whole lot of transmission of COVID-19 here within our borders already."

People wearing masks sit in a row of seats with suitcases.
Inbound travellers wait to leave for quarantine hotels from Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport on Dec. 25. The U.S. is bringing in new COVID-19 testing rules for travellers from China as it continues to ease restrictions and case numbers soar. (Emily Wang Fujiyama/The Associated Press)

Early warning program

Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University, agreed China isn't sharing enough genomic sequencing information. But he also said the U.S. has become a little complacent about sequencing and needs to redouble its own efforts.

The CDC also announced the expansion of an early warning program that tests volunteers at select airports for new and rare variants of the coronavirus. That program will expand to airports in Seattle and Los Angeles.

General COVID-19 testing rules will apply to people travelling from China via a third country and to people connecting through the U.S. as they go on to other destinations. Anyone testing positive more than 10 days before the flight can provide documentation showing they've recovered from COVID-19 instead of a negative test result.

It will be up to the airlines to confirm negative tests and documentation.

Japan, India among those requiring testing 

In an abrupt change of policy, China this month began dismantling the world's strictest COVID-19 regime of lockdowns and extensive testing, putting its battered economy on course for a complete reopening next year.

The lifting of restrictions, following widespread protests against them, means COVID-19 is spreading largely unchecked and could be infecting millions of people a day, according to some international health experts.

Beijing has faced international criticism that its official COVID-19 data and its tally of deaths are inconsistent with the scale of its outbreak. International modelling groups have predicted China could experience two million deaths or more.

Other countries have taken similar steps in an effort to keep infections from spreading beyond China's borders. Japan will require a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival for travellers from China, and Malaysia announced new tracking and surveillance measures. India, South Korea and Taiwan are requiring virus tests for visitors from China.

Lunar New Year, which begins Jan. 22, is usually China's busiest travel season, and China announced Tuesday it will resume issuing passports for tourism for the first time since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

The U.S. action is a return to requirements for some international travellers. The Biden administration lifted the last of such mandates in June. At that time, the CDC continued to recommend that people boarding flights to the U.S. get tested close to departure time and not travel if they are sick.

Early in the pandemic, the U.S. barred entry to foreigners travelling from China, weeks after the virus first emerged there three years ago. Americans were allowed to return home and flights from China were funneled to selected airports where passengers were screened for illness.

But the virus already was spreading in the U.S. among people with no travel history. 

With files from CBC News and Reuters