Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke announced on Monday that Belgium will start testing the wastewater on airplanes coming from China, in an attempt to keep tabs on the Covid variants coming from the Asian country.
The move comes as China has announced the relaxation of its strict zero-Covid policies, including lifting restrictions on its citizen’s overseas trips. China has started issuing passports for its citizens and visas for foreigners again, after stopping the procedures in March 2020. After relaxing some travel restrictions last month, it has been announced that mandatory quarantine periods will also be significantly shortened as of January.
But this has led to a surge in caseload which prompted many countries around the world to start imposing testing requirements on travellers coming from China, fearing the spread of the virus. Although Italy pleaded the EU to introduce the testing requirement bloc-wide, after a meeting last week, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) called the measure unjustified, while Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides stressed that it is more important to sequence virus genomes rather than implement travel restrictions since, at the moment, the variants in China already circulate in the EU.
We have received opinions from the experts, and they are unanimous and practical: what is happening in China does not immediately put us at great risk here and now, thanks to the fact that we have vaccinated en masse.Frank Vandenbroucke, Federal Health Minister of Belgium
During a press conference, Vandenbroucke stressed that, as the EU has a high vaccination rate, the surge in China’s caseload is not worrying at the moment, but caution must be taken in case new variants develop. Thus, the wastewater on direct flights from China, arriving at Brussels Airport twice a week, will be tested. “This will allow us to study the genome of the virus to detect any variants. All European countries should do that. Several other countries – such as the United States, Australia and Malaysia – are also considering the measure” the minister said.
Additionally, testing will be required for people who have visited China in the past seven days and are displaying symptoms. The requirement is only for a quick test, while a PCR one is only recommended. “Those tests will also be sent to a lab, where they can be sequenced to detect any variants”, Vandenbroucke added.
Regarding testing all arrivals from China, the minister explained that unless the measure is taken EU-wide and the passenger locator form (PLF) re-introduced, it would not be efficient. “To be effective, we must then reintroduce the PLF to allow follow-up of people coming from China.” In the meantime, he advises everyone to keep washing their hands regularly, stay at home if they have any symptoms and get vaccinated.