This Morning: Dr Zoe talks about new Covid variant XBB1.5

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The new Omicron subvariant of COVID-19 — which has been named XBB.1.5 — is the “most transmissible” yet, the World Health Organisation said yesterday. XBB.1.5 is thought to have emerged in the US, and has been spreading particularly rapidly in the northeastern States. It has already been detected in 28 other countries, including the UK. However, health experts have said that there is presently no indication that the new subvariant is capable of causing more severe infections than its predecessors.

The WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead and epidemiologist Dr Maria Van Kerkhove added that the upsurge in XBB.1.5 just goes to highlight how important it is “to continue surveillance for COVID-19 around the world”.

She added: “There were more than 13 million COVID cases reported to the WHO last month alone — and we know that that’s an underestimate because surveillance has declined.”

At the same time, Dr Van Kerkhove noted, there were 15 percent more deaths from COVID-19 around the globe last month than in November.

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added: “Every week, approximately 10,000 people die of COVID-19, that we are aware of. The true toll is likely much higher.”

WHO officials also criticised China’s data on Covid deaths in particular, warning that the official statistics being released by Beijing are not showing the true impact of the outbreaks.WHO Emergencies Director Dr Michael Ryan said: “We still do not have complete data. We believe that the current numbers being published from China under-represent the true impact of the disease in terms of hospital admissions, in terms of ICU admissions — and particularly in terms of deaths.”

Last month, China redefined its criteria for recording Covid deaths such that only those who died of respiratory failure would be counted — a move which relies, Dr Ryan said, on “a very narrow definition”. In fact, only 22 deaths from Covid have been officially reported since December.

Chinese officials have been keen, however, to both downplay the number of deaths and refute suggestions that their records are not a true reflection of reality. In an interview with state broadcaster China Central Television on Monday, National Health Commission Bureau of Medical Administration Director General Dr Yahui Jiao claimed that China had always published data “on COVID-19 deaths and severe cases in the spirit of openness and transparency.”

She added: “China has always been committed to the scientific criteria for judging COVID-19 deaths, from beginning to end, which are in line with the international criteria.”

Concern around the true scale of China’s current Covid situation — and the accuracy of their official statistics — has driven calls across Europe and beyond for the introduction of travel restrictions on airline passengers from China.

Yesterday, following a crisis meeting, the European Union “strongly encouraged” its member countries to demand COVID tests from passengers coming from China.In a statement, the EU also recommended that random tests of passengers are made on arrival, that the wastewater of flights from China is analysed for traces of COVID-19, and that passengers travelling to and from China wear face masks.

Beijing is understood to be displeased by the restrictions many nations have already announced — and have warned of “countermeasures” in response should such policies be expanded in the coming days.

Yesterday, Chinese government spokesperson Mao Ning said: “We sincerely hope that all parties will focus on fighting the epidemic itself, [and] avoid the politicisation of Covid.”Also unhappy is the global airline industry, which fears that such measures may have a chilling effect on the purchase of flights to and from China.

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Yesterday, Willie Walsh, the Director General of the International Air Transport Association — which represents some 300 airlines — said: “It is extremely disappointing to see this knee-jerk reinstatement of measures that have proven ineffective over the last three years.

“Research undertaken around the arrival of the Omicron variant concluded that putting barriers in the way of travel made no difference to the peak spread of infections. At most, restrictions delayed that peak by a few days.”

Some health experts have agreed with this sentiment, suggesting that there is no need for blanket restrictions on travel, given that the variants presently circulating in China are already prevalent in Europe.

Here in the UK, the Government has announced that from today travellers from China will need to present a negative test result to their airline before flying — and a subset of passengers will also be tested for Covid on arrival. However, transport secretary Mark Harper told LBC on Tuesday, those who test positive will not be required to enter quarantine.

He said: “What we are doing is we are collecting that information for surveillance purposes. One in 45 people in the United Kingdom have got Covid at the moment. The policy for arrivals from China is primarily about collecting information that the Chinese government [is] not sharing with the international community.”

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