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CDC reinstates COVID-19 testing for flights from China

The change occurs six months after the agency lifted a broader testing requirement for airline passengers from any foreign country

A member of staff disembarks from an Air China flight carrying 500.000 protective masks at Athens International Airport on March 21, 2020.
A member of staff disembarks from an Air China flight carrying 500.000 protective masks at Athens International Airport on March 21, 2020. (Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty ImagesAFP via Getty Images)

Corrected Jan. 5 | The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will again require airline passengers traveling from China to show a negative COVID-19 test amid a surge in cases after mass protests prompted the Chinese government to relax some draconian containment measures.

The requirement, which begins Jan. 5, comes six months after the CDC lifted a broader testing requirement for airline passengers traveling from any foreign country. The agency warned then that it would “periodically reassess” and reinstate testing requirements as needed.

Passengers age 2 and older must show a negative result from either a PCR or rapid antigen test performed or monitored by a licensed health professional within two days of departure, the agency said Wednesday in announcing the requirement.

The requirement applies to passengers coming directly from China, Hong Kong and Macau, and those traveling through South Korea’s Incheon International Airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport or Vancouver International Airport. The CDC said Wednesday those three airports encompass the “overwhelming majority” of people traveling from China.

Passengers can also show documentation of recovery from COVID-19 if they tested positive more than 10 days before their flight. 

The CDC also said it is expanding a voluntary program that tests passengers arriving from at least 30 countries and sequences variants from positive cases. The program will now include airports in Los Angeles and Seattle, encompassing 500 flights each week, including 290 flights from China.

The U.S. follows several other countries in implementing the testing requirement on travelers from China after the country announced plans to ease its border restrictions beginning Jan. 8 as part of the change in policy on COVID-19. Experts have debated the effectiveness of the policy, considering COVID-19’s global presence and the time lag between a passenger taking a test and boarding a plane. But the lack of transparency into China’s data also raises particular concerns.

“What needs to be clear is what is the objective of this policy and how do we evaluate it,” Infectious Diseases Society of America President Carlos del Rio tweeted.

China’s surge in cases is difficult to quantify because of the government’s decisions to scale back data reporting and to limit the definition of COVID-19 deaths to those caused by respiratory failure. 

The World Health Organization recently called on China to release more thorough statistics, with Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO Health Emergencies Programme, warning that the country’s current method “will very much underestimate the true death toll.”

The photo with this report was replaced to illustrate an Air China flight.

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