Happy new year – it’s still the same chaotic world: With COVID-19 ravaging China, testing controversy brews and Paxlovid becomes a luxury good. Plus the US job market holds on tight, Russia retaliates over the oil price cap, Japan snaps up global LNG supply, and plastics prices plummet.
As the Chinese government lets COVID-19 rip within its borders, it has also ceased publishing daily case figures and appears to have stopped uploading genomic sequencing to the international GISAID database.
“Given the reported surge in infections in mainland China, it is of particular interest what the circulating variants are. However, there is a total lack of recent sequences from community circulation in mainland China,” researchers from the University of Basel’s pandemic surveillance program wrote in their latest weekly variant report.
Beijing’s gigantic black box poses an urgent problem for the rest of the world. Most directly, it hinders scientists’ ability to track the evolution of virus strains and monitor the potential development of new variants.
In response, several countries have stepped up testing requirements for inbound travelers from China. So far, Italy, Japan, and Taiwan have said they will test travelers from China on arrival. Malaysia will test the wastewater of flights from China. The US and Spain are requiring travelers to test at their point of departure and produce proof of a negative test. The US is also reportedly considering testing wastewater of flights.
Critics say these China-targeted travel restrictions are useless: COVID-19 cases are spreading worldwide anyway, and testing arrivals from China won’t change that. But that critique misses an important point, the need for acquiring information that China would rather hide. Since Beijing is characteristically obfuscating facts and censoring important data, other countries must gather what information they can. That means testing travelers from China and performing genomic sequencing on positive cases. From this, countries can extrapolate the scale of the outbreak in China, based on the percentage of positive cases on flights. The pace at which new strains emerge among arrivals from China can also be clues to how quickly cases are spreading in the country.
Meanwhile, as COVID-19 ravages China, production in the country is suffering. At the Volkswagen plant in Changchun city, the company has had to halve its work shifts as employees call in sick; in India, drug-makers are positioning to hoard supplies, concerned that a drop in China’s output will wreak havoc on global supply chains. A Reuters poll on Friday showed that China’s factory activity is expected to decline in December.