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Australia’s top health adviser urged government against restrictions on travelers from China

By Jessie Yeung, Hilary Whiteman and Alex Stambaugh, CNN

Australia’s top medical officer advised the government against imposing any restrictions on travelers coming from China, a day before the health minister announced new testing requirements, internal documents show.

China’s Covid cases are surging after Beijing abandoned its costly zero-Covid strategy, prompting a number of countries to impose restrictions on travelers coming from China and its territories.

Australia was among them, though a letter published on the government website on Tuesday, written by the country’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly, reveals that the decision was made despite his advice that it wasn’t necessary.

“Based on available information, and in the absence of a specific threat from a variant with increased pathogenicity and immune escape, I do not believe that there is sufficient public health rationale to impose any restriction or additional requirements on travelers from China,” Kelly wrote in the letter dated December 31.

In the letter, Kelly acknowledged widespread concern about the limited information being released by China about its outbreak, “which has highlighted some gaps in global surveillance.”

However, he added that he had consulted with health officers from other parts of the country and New Zealand, and found a “strong consensus” that targeted travel restrictions would be “inconsistent with the current national approach to the management of Covid-19 and disproportionate to the risk.”

Regardless, the following day Australian Health Minister Mark Butler announced that from Thursday, travelers coming from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao must show proof of a negative Covid test taken within 48 hours of their departure. At the time, he said the new measures were due to the “lack of comprehensive information” about China’s Covid situation and genomic sequencing data.

After criticism that the government was ignoring medical advice, Butler told local radio on Tuesday that it was acting “out of an abundance of caution,” and that the measures were limited to arrivals from China because, until recently, it was the only “significant country” in the world that hadn’t opened up.

Australia is among more than a dozen countries that have imposed restrictions on travelers from China and its territories in the past week. Most, including the US, UK, and other parts of Europe and Asia, are requiring either a pre-departure test or testing on arrival, with arrivals found positive needing to quarantine.

Morocco took the extra step of outright banning all travelers from China, regardless of nationality. The ban goes into effect on Tuesday, with no information on when it will be lifted or whether it applies to people traveling from Hong Kong and Macao, China’s two special administrative regions.

The measures have been controversial, with health experts and scientists around the world warning that these targeted restrictions are largely ineffective at preventing the spread of Covid or new variants — and that they could instead stoke racism and xenophobia.

On Tuesday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Mao Ning warned that China would take countermeasures against the travel restrictions.

“Some countries have adopted entry restrictions targeting only China, which lack scientific basis, and some excessive practices are even more unacceptable,” she said, adding: “We are firmly opposed to attempts to manipulate epidemic prevention and control measures for political purposes, and will take corresponding countermeasures for different situations in accordance with the principle of reciprocity.”

Several experts told CNN there is currently no evidence of a new variant emerging from China, and that even if one were to arise, it would likely spread across the world anyway. Testing requirements don’t catch all cases, especially with variants that have a shorter incubation period.

A country’s best defense was to make sure its own population was well protected through domestic policy, such as widespread vaccinations and basic public health measures, said Karen Grepin, an associate professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong.

“In a lot of parts of the world, the pandemic feels like it’s over … but at the end of the day, (these measures) are ultimately what prevents the transmission of the virus,” she said, adding that there’s “no point in worrying about imported cases, if you’re not going to do anything about domestic cases.”

“If countries are at the point where they think those things are no longer important, because for example they’ve developed so much population immunity, then why care about a couple of new cases coming in from China?”

In his letter, Kelly argued that Australia’s domestic situation was strong enough to avoid imposing restrictions, pointing to the country’s “strong surveillance mechanisms” and high immunity levels — due to both vaccination and previous infection.

Instead of travel restrictions, he proposed several alternative measures including an aircraft wastewater testing program and voluntary sampling of incoming travelers on arrival.

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CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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