Calls to halt flights from UK grow as mutated virus' ability to evade human immune system improves rapidly

By Wang Qi, Tu Lei and Zhao Juecheng Source: Global Times Published: 2020/12/21 15:28:34

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo:Xinhua

Chinese netizens called for flights from the UK to be halted after a new coronavirus variant sweeping the south of the country caused public fear and chaos. 

Experts said more attention should be paid to customs inspections, and it would be reasonable to limit flights from high-risk regions until more is known about the variant, especially in the face of passive moves from Downing Street. 

Following the discovery that the new variant is 70 percent more transmissible, at least 30 countries and regions have decided to halt flights or take stricter entry measures against travelers from the UK, just days before the Christmas season. 

The UK reported over 27,000 COVID-19 cases on Saturday. The same day, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a Tier 4 lockdown would be imposed on London and large parts of southern and eastern England, the toughest restrictions that prohibit household gatherings over Christmas. 

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said at Monday's routine press briefing that China has taken note of the UK's situation and will take appropriate measures to ensure healthy and orderly people exchanges. 

The ministry's remarks might be a signal of further actions in self-protection, some analysts said, especially after the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government announced on Monday the suspension of flights from the UK from Monday midnight, amid concerns over the more infectious coronavirus variant, as 22 percent of the 1,900 cases of imported infections in Hong Kong came from the UK.

The UK has been a major source of imported COVID-19 cases in China. Beijing has reported a total of 200 imported COVDI-19 cases from 27 countries and regions since the city discovered imported cases on February 29, statistics released by the city's health commission on Sunday show. The UK has topped the list with 57 cases, followed by Spain (47), Italy (20) and the US (19).

It also came after China tightened requirements for passengers flying in from the US on Sunday amid a spike in imported COVID-19 cases among those traveling from the US in the wake of the worsening COVID-19 situation in the country, and the discovery of fake test reports that have threatened China's epidemic control.

Halt flights from UK?

Chen Xi, an assistant professor of public health at Yale University, told the Global Times on Monday that the mutated virus' capability to evade the human immune system has improved rapidly, and the short-term spike in transmissions is mainly due to this reason. 

"Customs inspectors should be very careful. It is necessary to enhance screening for travelers before leaving the UK, and understandable for flights from high-risk regions to be limited until more is known about the variant," Chen said. 

Yang Zhanqiu, deputy director of the pathogen biology department at Wuhan University, told the Global Times on Monday that if the virus mutation in the UK is large, it could pose serious problems for the prevention and control of the epidemic.

"The current climate conditions in the UK are also more suitable for the survival and transmission of COVID-19. At the same time, the mutation of the virus could render existing vaccines ineffective," said Yang, calling for added vigilance. 

Among the viruses circulating in different regions in the world, those in Europe, including the UK, are both more virulent and transmissible, said Yang, noting that the large number of people infected in the Beijing Xinfadi food market was related to the Europe-imported virus. 

Out of safety concerns, many Chinese netizens have also called for a suspension of flights to and from the UK, or at least tougher prevention and control measures. An online video showing hundreds of people rushing to London's Paddington train station in a bid to flee the capital before the lockdown took effect attracted over 130 million views on Twitter-like Weibo.  

"A mass exodus would cause even more chaos and infections. I want our compatriots in the UK to remain safe, but the suspension of flights to and from the UK is probably necessary," said a Weibo user.

"The biggest risk to China is imported infections, including inbound travelers and imported cold-chain food, and I hope the government restricts the number of arrivals from the UK until the country recovers," said another.

Some experts do not agree to a ban of all flights as the UK's flights to China are fewer than to Western countries, which means a lower risk.    

Data from information provider VariFlight showed that from November 1 to December 16, there were eight flights from the UK to the Chinese mainland per week, usually by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines. 

The destinations were Shanghai, Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong Province, and Qingdao in East China's Shandong Province. 

China launched its "Five One" policies at the end of March in a bid to curb  imported COVID-19 infections, allowing one airline to serve one country, from one Chinese city to one foreign city, with no more than one flight a week.

China has an effective and long-term mechanism for inbound flights and it is not necessary to cancel all flights for some countries with a virus spreading in a short time, Qi Qi, a market watcher, told the Global Times on Monday. 

Lu Hongzhou, co-director of the Shanghai Public Health Clinical Center at Fudan University, told the Global Times that for those countries or regions that have applied lax entry controls, it is necessary to strengthen management. 

The passage from Dover port in the UK to France is closed on Monday. France suspended air, sea and land traffic from the UK for 48 hours. Photo: VCG

To be or not to be

"Christmas cancelled. Thank you, China," said Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, on Twitter Sunday. His comments quickly drew criticism from netizens, some of whom said they have had enough of such irresponsible words, especially when China has already curbed the epidemic. 

"This was the UK govt from the start. They knew it was coming but did nothing," a British Twitter user named Lewy said.  

"When Wuhan was closed down in January, some British media attacked China in the name of the so-called human rights and freedom, arguing that a society's operations could not be stopped. However, faced with the current mess, didn't the UK still lock down London? It's the difference between doing something actively and responding passively," said a Weibo user.

London is facing a similar situation as Wuhan: a lockdown before the biggest festival in the country. Compared to Wuhan's decisive lockdown, the UK's Tier 4 restrictions accept multiple "reasonable excuses," including work and volunteering, travel for education. One can meet with one other person in a public space.

Some experts believe that the UK's strategy was to regulate (to lock down) before it faced a medical overload, and then to expect a gradual vaccination to achieve herd immunity, but this is a passive and risky move.

"Freedom became a cover for the government's inaction in the UK, and the vaccines are the only lifeline," Zhang, a London-based Chinese, told the Global Times on Monday. She worries that the government has no choice but to vacillate between dangerous openings and a sudden shutdown, as the mutation poses a challenge to the effectiveness of vaccines under development, as well as those already in emergency use.  

"The accelerated strengthening of the virus could impact the long-term effectiveness of the vaccine. If the impact is too great, the vaccine could become an annual injection like seasonal flu vaccines," said Chen. 

Even without the mutated strain, we still do not know how long it will be effective. Up to 120 days are guaranteed, but we are not sure if the efficacy would last after mutation, Chen said.  

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday that the new strain of the coronavirus was "out of control."

If the mutation is a minor one, and is amplified by cold weather and holidays, it will not affect the vaccine too much. However, if the virus mutates into a new subtype, the efficacy of the vaccine will be hugely impacted and the UK will repeat its previous disaster under the current strategy, Yang said.  

Chen Shasha also contributed to this story

Posted in: SOCIETY

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