Worry about US XBB variant, not China variants

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Targeting China is barking the wrong tree because Made-in-USA variant XBB.1.5 is the slipperiest of them all.

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Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said Malaysia won’t discriminate against travellers or tourists from any particular country, even though his new unity government is prioritizing health over tourism and economy. He announced that immigration checkpoints will be tightened to screen arrivals from places with a high rate of infections – including China and the United States.

The decision by the Cabinet was made in preparation for an influx of over one million Chinese tourists to visit Malaysia. Effective this Sunday (Jan 8, 2023), the scrapping of China’s “Zero-Covid” will see the lifting of a travel ban imposed by Beijing, which has been in place since March 2020. Obviously, Anwar administration’s decision was carefully designed in order not to be seen as anti-China.

Countries like the US, Japan, India, Italy and Taiwan have imposed mandatory Covid-19 testing for travellers arriving from China. Morocco is the only country in the world that has slapped a blanket ban on all travellers from China effective January 3, triggering a warning from Beijing of retaliations. Washington has urged Beijing not to retaliate against the US over the Covid restrictions.

The fact that the US saw it necessary to persuade China not to hit back at nations that impose new rules on Chinese travellers suggests that even Washington has to be careful not to spark another warzone with Beijing. Interestingly, not all US allies, especially the European Union, are united in enforcing the Coronavirus testing, let alone banning travellers from China.

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China, of course, was not impressed with all the new measures imposed on its people. It has accused the US of using the pandemic to achieve its political goals by launching a smear campaign targeting China. The country has condemned it as discriminatory to only test Chinese travellers, but not people from other countries. It’s not hard to justify the Chinese government’s protest.

As a start, today is not 2020 when the Coronavirus disease began to spread rapidly and globally. After three years, vaccines have been developed and those who need to be inoculated had already received their dose of vaccine. To blindly close the doors to anyone coming from China is an insult to the superiority of Western vaccines like Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca.

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Are you saying the vaccines developed by the American, British and German scientists are useless against Covid variants currently infecting China? Otherwise, why do you need to impose discriminatory restrictions or an outright ban when it won’t make any difference? After all, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday (Jan 4) that there is no new variant found in China.

Yes, the problem raised by the US was that China has not been transparent about its infections and death toll. The WHO, meanwhile, said the problem was the lack of data about the number of people who died due to Covid-19 in China. The issue, it appears, isn’t about new variants from China that could kill people upon the lifting of the travel ban, but rather the under-reported cases and deaths.

For example, Malaysia Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah revealed that the country has found that 96.5% of samples taken from international entry points contained the Omicron variants. In fact, the two main variants that are spreading rapidly in China – BA.5.2 and BF.7 – that accounted for almost 80% of the variants found in China currently, have been detected in Malaysia.

Crucially, as at Dec 31, 2022, there were 4,148 cases infected with BA.5.2 and three cases infected with BF.7 in Malaysia. However, Dr Noor Hisham admitted that there was no data to link serious cases or deaths to the BA.5.2 and BF.7 variants. But both variants were not the dominant in the country. Instead, the “XBB variant” was dominant (55.4%) since Oct 2022 in Malaysia.

Shanghai has just detected the Omicron sub-variants BQ.1 and XBB through imported cases. On the other hand, the “highly infectious” XBB variant has started spreading in the United Kingdom since winter – even before China lifts its travel ban. That explains why the British government announced that travellers testing positive for Covid after arriving from China will not be forced to quarantine.

Last Friday (Dec 30, 2022), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that XBB.1.5 has more than doubled its share in Covid-19 cases each week for the last four weeks in the US, skyrocketing from about 4% to 41% of new infections in December alone. The best part is that the XBB variant actually originated in the US – first detected in New York and Connecticut in late October 2022.

China should have slapped mandatory Covid-19 testing for travellers arriving from the US or even condemn the country for exporting its XBB variant to China, but it didn’t. China’s dominant variants BA.5.2 and BF.7 were mutated strains from Omicron, which originated in South Africa. It seems all these variants did not originate from China, despite laughable claims that the country is the source of all problems.

Exactly how could China travellers spread its Omicron sub-variants to Malaysia this Sunday, or the rest of the world for that matter, when the same variants have spread into the country since Oct 2022 – some three months ago? And how could the US claim that China could spread its Omicron variants when it was the US who is spreading its XBB variant to China and the world?

If indeed China’s Covid variants are fabulously deadly despite they are already everywhere, why hasn’t Britain, Europe, Australia, Singapore, South America or other parts of the globe decisively closed their borders to tourists or travellers from the country? China has nothing to gain but everything to lose if indeed the Chinese communist government was plotting to infect the entire world as trumpeted by anti-Chinese propaganda.

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The last three years have shown how China’s economy suffered equally badly when the world was in lockdown, with every country closing its borders. If another breakout happens again, the world, including Beijing, will definitely plunge into recession – even depression. Beijing understood very well that it’s not in the best interest of the country to spread the so-called Chinese variants.

In short, the US and its handful of allies knew the variants from China are not any more lethal than the world has already seen. They just wanted to see more people in China had died than in the US in order to brag that American-led democracy is better than Chinese-style autocracy. Whatever data or statistics shared by Beijing will never satisfy rival US, as long as it is does not paint an ugly picture of China.

Western media like the New York Times previously reported that the deaths due to Covid were under-reported in India when oxygen shortage plagued the country. So, why didn’t the US demand transparency – the actual cases and infections – from the Indian government before they opened for tourism after a 20-month lockdown due to the pandemic?

Fine, let’s assume China’s abruptly abandoned Zero-Covid strategy would trigger another horrible outbreak. Will a mandatory Covid-19 testing specifically targeting China or even an outright ban sufficient to stop an outbreak? How do you tell the virus not to spread when Chinese tourists infect Spain and Spanish tourists subsequently visit neighbouring Morocco?

The only way to ensure variants from China will not enter a country, which is absolutely ridiculous because the variants were already everywhere, is to impose a complete closure of borders. But which country can survive a total isolation again? Banning or discriminating Chinese travellers isn’t the solution. There’s nothing you can do to stop people from moving from one place to another destination.

Worse, the revenue of economic and job opportunities generated from tourism would go to your neighbouring countries clever enough to see that any measures to restrict or ban Chinese travellers are not only ineffective, but also counterproductive. That’s why even Singapore is maintaining its Covid-19 rules towards incoming travellers from China, instead of acting rashly.

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Director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Willie Walsh, has condemned moves to introduce Covid-19 tests and other measures for passengers arriving from China. He argues that the measures represent a knee-jerk reinstatement of steps that have proven ineffective in stemming the pandemic over the past three years.

IATA, which represents airlines operating 83% of global air traffic, said that the travel restrictions have been shown to delay new waves of Covid-19 by only a few days – not stopping them – while at the same time strangling off international connectivity, damaging economies and destroying jobs. People from China can always go elsewhere if you try to make their life difficult.

In the end, countries that obsessively and religiously ban travellers from China would lose revenue from Chinese tourists, who spent a mind-boggling US$255 billion annually before the pandemic, yet are still unable to stop the Omicron variants from the country. Targeting China is barking the wrong tree because Made-in-USA variant XBB.1.5 is the slipperiest of them all. – Finance Twitter