Cypriot health officials are meeting on Tuesday to sift through data before deciding on possible COVID measures on travelers from China, but the task is made more difficult by criticism from a local expert and a new variant sweeping through the West.
According to the Cyprus News Agency, Health Minister Michalis Hadjipantela was scheduled to meet with members of the government’s scientific committee on Tuesday afternoon to review the coronavirus situation on the island following European fears about an outbreak in China.
Last week EU officials decided to “strongly” urge member states to require all travelers from China to take pre-departure Covid tests in response to surging levels of coronavirus cases in the country.
While many member states signed up for measures, Nicosia remained undecided while Greece was among states that did not favor measures.
US media reported this week that XBB.1.5 was barely on the radar in late November, when China opened up to the idea of gradually easing travel restrictions
Hadjipantela, who had pushed back on a meeting due to New Year celebrations and in a meeting last week further delayed a decision on possible measures, has had consultations with the European Commission and later said more data was needed to ascertain “if we need to take any action’.”
But a local expert in Cyprus says an EU decision to impose pre-departure COVID tests on travelers from China appears to be a political decision that is not based on science.
Leondios Kostrikis, who runs a lab in biotechnology and molecular virology in Cyprus, said last week that “the current surge in China is waning and the worst of cases is already over.”
Kostrikis echoed other European officials and the minister himself who said the variant currently circulating in China, which recently eased restrictions in the county, had already been introduced to the island back in August.
Latest offshoot variant sweeps through West
But a new offshoot of the globally-dominant Omicron Covid variant could be a threat.
Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5, a mutation that helps beat the body's immune defenses but also reduces its ability to infect human cells, has been found to circulate in the west last fall.
US media reported this week that XBB.1.5 was barely on the radar in late November, when China opened up to the idea of gradually easing restrictions.
Last week White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha warned that health officials in the States were “seeing sustained increases of COVID infections across the nation."
Sharing COVID data, a hotly debated topic
Beijing weighed in this week on the new subvariant, with Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin calling on the Washington to “share domestic COVID-19 information and data in a timely, open and transparent manner.”
"The US side should share domestic COVID-19 information and data with the World Health Organization and the international community in a timely, open and transparent manner, and take effective measures to prevent the further spread of the virus," Wang said.
But the same allegations have been launched against China when EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides told Hadjipantela and his European counterparts that reliable epidemiological and testing data for China were scarce.
Kyriakides, who hails from Cyprus, has called o n EU member states to take action such as pre-departure testing for travelers from China, stepping up wastewater monitoring including at airports, and increasing domestic surveillance.
Beijing has dismissed the allegations, with Chinese officials pointing out that the main variant now spreading in China had previously been found elsewhere already.
Beijing has dismissed Kyriakides suggestion that Chinese authorities failed to share information about the pandemic situation inside China.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning last week said Beijing “shared the genome data of the virus from the latest COVID cases in China via the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data,” adding that the main variant now spreading in China had previously been found elsewhere already.
“A new variant can emerge anywhere on the planet, which means entry restrictions targeting China are unnecessary,” Mao said last week.
Cypriot health officials have suggested Nicosia was expected to follow the recommendations backed by the European Commission. Tuesday's meeting is set to take place in the afternoon at 3pm.