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2020-11-03 09:14:23

International travel to the Chinese mainland has slowly resumed after a ban on most foreign nationals was imposed in March. Now, strict testing and quarantine measures are helping curb the risk of imported COVID-19 cases but also creating headaches for would-be returnees.

Starting this week, most if not all foreign and Chinese nationals flying into the country are required to present negative results for both nucleic acid and IgM antibody tests administered 48 hours before boarding. IgM is a type of protein the immune system produces to fight infections, and a negative IgM test result means an individual has either never been exposed to the COVID-19 virus or has recovered after being infected.

According to Lu Hongzhou, an infectious disease expert at Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center, it typically takes three to four weeks after infection before a recovered coronavirus patient tests negative for IgM antibodies.

“The policy makes sense for the current situation,” Lu told Sixth Tone. “We need the IgM test, as there could be false negatives for the nucleic acid test.”

Chinese experts have estimated false negative rates on nucleic acid tests to be anywhere from 20% to 50%.

The new entry requirements were posted on the websites of Chinese embassies in countries reporting surging infection rates, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Russia, India, and Nepal. It is unclear whether the rule applies to all incoming passengers or only those coming from or transiting through high-risk countries.

Previously, China-bound passengers were only required to show a negative result for a nucleic acid test taken 72 hours before boarding, as well as submit to 14 days’ quarantine upon arriving in the country.

According to the new announcements, inbound passengers should also apply for “certified health declaration forms” from their respective Chinese embassies after receiving their negative test results. Transiting through low-risk countries to skirt these requirements is not an option, as the rules apply to a passenger’s first port of departure.

The stricter entry requirements are an inconvenience to some travelers, who argue that not all medical institutions are able to provide test results within 24 hours, especially if the local health system is overwhelmed by domestic cases.

“It’s extremely inconvenient (to complete the required tests),” a student surnamed Wen in Australia told Sixth Tone. “I’m in Newcastle, around two or three hours’ drive from Sydney. My plane leaves Sunday, which means I have to do the test Friday and get the result Saturday — but that will be really difficult here.”

Others, meanwhile, believe the 48-hour window, though tight, is workable. Under a related hashtag on microblogging platform Weibo, a user appearing to be a Chinese mother in the U.K. commented that she was successful in registering for the tests after explaining the new entry requirement to local medical institutions.

“Although the time is quite tense, it’s still possible to manage,” she wrote.

While many countries around the world are still struggling to contain COVID-19, China has largely brought the virus under control, apart from sporadic clusters that have been traced to new arrivals and imported seafood.

On Monday, China’s National Health Commission reported 44 “confirmed” — or symptomatic — cases among newly arrived passengers, along with 48 asymptomatic imported cases. The country’s total number of confirmed cases stands at 86,070, while global infections exceed 46 million.

Editor: Bibek Bhandari.

(Header image: Passengers wait at a public health checkpoint at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, March 13, 2020. People Visual)