The United States will require all travelers from China to show a negative Covid-19 test result before flying to the country as Beijing’s rapid easing of Covid-19 restrictions leads to a surge in cases.
Passengers flying to the US from China will need to get a test no more than two days before flying, federal health officials said, and present proof of the negative test to their airline before boarding.
The tests can be either a PCR test or an antigen self-test administered through a telehealth service.
The requirement will apply both to passengers flying directly to the United States from China, including Hong Kong and Macau, as well to passengers flying through popular third-country gateways, including Seoul, Toronto and Vancouver.
Passengers who test positive more than 10 days before their flight can provide documentation of their recovery in lieu of a negative test result.
The new rules take effect at 12:01 a.m. ET on January 5.
American officials have expressed deep concerns about China’s lack of transparency surrounding the most recent surge in cases, particularly the absence of genome sequencing information that could help detect new strains of the coronavirus.
“We know these measures will not eliminate all risk or completely prevent people who are infected from entering the United States,” a federal health official said. Still, “taken together they will help limit the number of infected people and provide us an early warning about new variants.”
US health officials said the January 5 timeline was selected to provide airlines with ample time to adjust operations to implement the new rules. The officials did not estimate how long they expect these rules to remain in place, saying they would “monitor the situation on the ground and adjust as needed.”
Additionally, officials announced that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expanding the Traveler-based Genomic Surveillance program to airports in Seattle and Los Angeles, bringing the total number of airports participating to seven with approximately 500 weekly flights from at least 30 countries covered. This will include approximately 290 weekly flights from China and surrounding areas.
“We’re expanding that to hopefully to pick up any variant that may emerge” as well as “to reduce transmission of a new variant by introducing this pre-departure testing program,” an official said.
The new requirement comes as Japan and India have announced Covid-19 measures for travelers from China amid concerns over an uptick in cases.
Japan is requiring individuals traveling from China be tested for Covid-19 upon arrival starting December 30. Indian authorities have said travelers from China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Thailand will have to show proof of a negative Covid-19 test on arrival to India and quarantine if they test positive.
China has started loosening its strict Covid-19 measures after dismantling the country’s long-held zero-Covid policy earlier this month. On Monday, China announced it will end quarantine requirements for international arrivals from January 8, marking a major step toward reopening its borders.
But the sudden end to the China’s stringent health policy has caught many in the country off guard and put strains on the health system as it deals with an increase of infections.
Officials noted that the “CDC continues to recommend masking during travel, self-monitoring for symptoms and testing for three days after arrival for international travel.”
Officials said China uploaded “only about 100” new sequences to public databases in recent weeks, “including Omicron subvariants such as BA.5,” but the small sample size leaves room for concern, the CDC said.
“What we’re concerned about is a new variant may emerge actually in China,” one official said. “With so many people in China being infected in a short period of time, there is a chance and probability that a new variant will emerge.”
Asked if there was concern about the veracity of the data – and whether China was being truthful and transparent, an official said it was mainly the amount of data that concerned the administration at this point.
“We have just limited information in terms of what’s being shared related to number of cases (that) are increasing hospitalizations, and especially deaths,” he said. “Also, there’s been a decrease in testing across China. So that also makes it difficult to know what the true infection rate is.”
China’s foreign ministry responded Wednesday to reports that the US is considering imposing restrictions on travelers from China, urging parties to work together to ensure the safe movement of people between countries and the stability of the global supply chain.
“We need all parties to work together scientifically against the epidemic to ensure the safe movement of people between countries, maintain the stability of the global industrial chain supply chain and promote the resumption of healthy growth in the world economy,” China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said in a briefing.
This story has been updated with additional developments.