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The U.S. will require travelers from China to take COVID tests

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Many Chinese citizens are looking forward to international travel next year, but they may encounter a familiar extra step first - getting a negative coronavirus test. Starting January 5, the U.S. will require anyone arriving from China to test negative for COVID at least two days before traveling. Japan, India and Italy are some of the countries now requiring the same. The move comes as China undergoes a surge in COVID cases, a surge that likely has already infected hundreds of millions of people in December alone. NPR's Emily Feng is here with us in the studio to talk about this. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Sarah.

MCCAMMON: So first of all, why are the U.S. and a handful of other countries asking for this negative test now?

FENG: Well, the U.S. Center for Disease Control says they're doing this because China is not being transparent. Federal officials said today in a briefing that China is not reporting viral genomic sequencing data on the kinds of variants that are spreading in China, and China also hasn't reported COVID infection or hospitalization numbers. And so the U.S. says they want to test to keep infections and potentially new variants from spreading from China to the U.S. This U.S. testing rule applies for anyone traveling by air. It includes anyone who is transiting through another country. So as long as you're 2 years and older, and you're departing from China, including Hong Kong/Macau, you're going to need a test administered within 48 hours. And I should note, testing is not a new tool. China itself, for example, still requires at least two negative COVID tests to enter. And for most of this year, actually, you even need a COVID test within China to enter a public space like a subway.

MCCAMMON: So how effective are these measures in stopping these new variants from spreading?

FENG: The idea with testing is that you can stop people who are infectious from boarding, and you can thus minimize opportunities for the virus to spread. This is a tool that the U.S. CDC endorses. And yes, these tests are not 100% perfectly accurate, but they're pretty good at catching most infections. And right now, the biggest concern among experts is that you have so many people in China - likely hundreds of millions of people being infected simultaneously. And when you have those volumes, you could start to see new variants of COVID emerge, and testing might be able to slow down those variants from spreading. Chinese health officials say they've found 130 subvariants of omicron spreading right now in the country, but they haven't found anything new and concerning yet. The U.S. CDC and other countries, however, say they want more information from China, including the full genomic sequencing of all the variants they've found. And absent that, they've got to test everyone coming from China. And this is where things could get testy politically.

MCCAMMON: You know, I'm reminded of how, in 2020, the U.S. and China had a standoff over COVID - how each country was deciding to deal with the pandemic differently. So with this new testing requirement, could it create renewed diplomatic tension?

FENG: Almost certainly yes, but it depends on how Chinese diplomats react. For example, in the early days of the pandemic, Chinese officials were vehement in their objections to travel bans. They called them racist and unfair, even though China itself almost completely closed its borders in 2020. In this case, the U.S. testing requirement is not a travel ban. But it's the timing of these new U.S. testing rules that other countries, including Italy and Malaysia, for example, are adding that are going to add insult to injury because China just announced this week it will drop its own requirement for negative COVID tests and quarantines to enter China starting in January. And as a result, Chinese citizens have been buying up plane tickets and booking vacations abroad as they prepare to start traveling internationally again, finally. But this time, they're going to have to schedule a COVID test as well.

MCCAMMON: NPR's Emily Feng, thank you so much.

FENG: Thanks, Sarah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.