Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

A traveller from China walks through the COVID-19 testing booths at the Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle airport on Jan. 1, 2023, as France reinforces health measures at the borders for passengers arriving from China.JULIEN DE ROSA/AFP/Getty Images

The decision by Canada and a growing list of countries to impose new COVID-19 restrictions on travellers from China isn’t going to reduce spread of the virus, according to experts who say the move appears designed to put pressure on Chinese officials to be more transparent.

On Saturday, the federal government announced that as of Jan. 5, all travellers two and older arriving in Canada from China, Hong Kong and Macao will need to provide a negative COVID test taken no more than two days before departure. Several other countries, including the U.S., France and India, have adopted similar measures in recent days as cases in China soar and the government continues to restrict the release of information about the new wave.

In a statement on its website, the Public Health Agency of Canada said the change is being introduced because of the surge of cases in China and the “limited epidemiological and viral genomic sequence data available on these cases.”

The change, which is set to be in place for a minimum of 30 days, was announced three years after the first reports emerged of a cluster of pneumonia cases with an unknown cause in Wuhan, China.

Zain Chagla: Why are we still talking about travel restrictions for COVID-19?

“I don’t think the objective is to reduce or cut down transmission chains of viruses coming into the country,” said Nazeem Muhajarine, epidemiology professor at the University of Saskatchewan and co-lead of the public health and social policy impacts section of the Coronavirus Variants Rapid Response Network. “I think this policy would be a way to force the hand of China for more transparency of data sharing, COVID-19 related data sharing.”

Last week, the World Health Organization held a meeting with high-level Chinese officials to ask for more genetic-sequencing data, COVID-related hospital and ICU admissions and deaths and data on vaccination status. Another meeting is scheduled to take place on Tuesday. China has come under fire since the start of the pandemic for its failure to be transparent about the impact of the virus and to share information about new variants and other issues of concern.

Dr. Muhajarine said it’s imperative to receive more information in order to manage the pandemic.

“We need global co-operation to really contend with COVID-19,” he said.

Instead of imposing travel restrictions, it would make more sense to focus on community-based measures that could help reduce the impact of COVID as a new variant takes hold, said Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-diseases specialist at the University Health Network in Toronto.

“We know that targeted travel measures and travel policy like this will not have any impact on the spread of COVID-19 here in Canada,” Dr. Bogoch said.

XBB.1.5, a subvariant of Omicron, is quickly becoming dominant in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, XBB.1.5 is more transmissible than other variants, but it’s not yet clear if it causes more severe disease.

Dr. Bogoch said that pop-up vaccine clinics in areas disproportionately affected by the virus, better communication about the importance of mask-wearing indoors and targeted public-education campaigns about receiving up-to-date booster vaccines could all help.

“It’s still important to inform Canadians that the virus is still here, that it disproportionately impacts certain individuals, like older individuals,” he said.

Dr. Muhajarine said it can be challenging to use targeted communication strategies to reach at-risk groups, such as older people, but that despite this, more needs to be done to prevent severe illness linked to COVID infections. He said that temporary measures, such as mask requirements for air travel, could also be used until the situation becomes more stable.

“There are still people who are vulnerable,” Dr. Muhajarine said. “At the individual level, it is still very serious. It can be a threatening disease.”