By Gina Agapiou and Nick Theodoulou
“No reason for concern so far” regarding the surge in China Covid cases, Health Minister Michalis Hadjipantela said on Monday, as some nations began imposing restrictions on travellers from the Asian country.
The ministry is in constant communication with the competent authorities and are closely following the recommendations of the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC), he said.
No decisions were announced following the minister’s meeting with the scientific advisors on Monday, as more meetings are scheduled at a European level to assess the situation. This comes as Beijing is poised to lift travel restrictions on January 8.
Hadjipantela will meet the team again next week.
It was earlier reported that Hadjipantela was to submit a report on the measures taken by other countries and their epidemiological situation to the advisors.
The health minister had said he also discussed on Monday with the director of the Centre for Infectious Diseases in Italy about the results of the tests carried out by Italy on travellers from China.
He also talked to the EU Commissioner for Health Stella Kyriakides, who informed him that there will be discussions at the European Commission over the next two days about the situation.
According to the health ministry, any decisions will be taken after the commission’s meetings since Cyprus is likely to follow other EU countries in their approach to travellers from China amid its Covid surge.
Hadjipantela said the strain detected now in China was found on the island since August “so there is no reason for any panic at this particular time”.
“We have decided to study the data even more in the coming days,” he added.
Two more meetings at the European Commission are expected, Hadjipantela said, “where more data will be given to the partner of the health ministry”. He added that he will meet with the scientific team next Tuesday to take decisions.
Media reported that part of the discussions was the possibility of requiring a negative test from travellers from China or increase random testing at the airports. The reintroduction of the face mask mandate in airports was also discussed.
Speaking on behalf of the scientific committee, Dr George Panos referred to a variant detected in North America, which also exists in Cyprus.
“At the moment we know that it has 20 per cent higher transmissibility, but it is a good strain, so we are not worried about it from a medical point of view.”
There will be an “extensive review” of the data with all suggestions that come up, Panos said, and the committee will make concrete decisions next week.
“Cyprus at the moment is well prepared, the variants that are circulating both in China and Europe are variants that the health ministry is aware of,” he added.
Government advisor Petros Karayiannis told the Cybc earlier on Monday that there is no guarantee of a new variant being brought in and if that were to happen then to what degree it would be a variant of concern is also uncertain.
Karayiannis said the dominant strain in China is Omicron related but the main concern is that any new variant may be able to “further undermine the effectiveness of the vaccines”.
He noted that currently all Covid patients in Cyprus are elderly, many of whom have underlying health conditions. He emphasised that many of them have not had their booster dose – “some of them not even the third shot”.
“I must emphasise that in these age groups the rate of those vaccinated with their fourth or fifth shot is about 26 per cent, therefore it is a very low rate,” he said.
Meanwhile, EU health officials will hold talks on Wednesday in a response to the outbreak of Covid-19 infections in China, the Swedish EU presidency said on Monday, as December talks ended without any decisions on the issue.
At a similar meeting on December 29 held online with more than 100 representatives of EU governments, EU health agencies and the World Health Organisation (WHO), Italy urged the rest of the union to follow suit and screen travellers from China for Covid.
Britain on Friday announced that travellers from China will be required to prove a negative covid test pre-departure.
However, other member states have said they do not see the need to do so despite China’s decision to relax its pandemic restrictions amid a wave of new infections.
European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakidou said in a letter to EU governments on December 29 that they should immediately consider scaling up genomic sequencing of Covid-19 virus infections and monitoring sewage, including at airports, to detect any new variants, given the spate of infections in China.
Kyriakidou said the bloc should be “very careful” as reliable epidemiological and testing data for China is scarce, advising EU health ministers to assess their current practices on coronavirus genomic sequencing “as an immediate step”.
However, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said last week that it does not currently recommend measures for travellers from China.
It explained that variants circulating in China are already in the European Union, that EU citizens have relatively high levels of vaccination and that the potential for imported infections is low compared to everyday infections in the EU, with healthcare systems currently adequately responding.
Nations which have, or are considering, imposing restrictions on travellers from China cite a lack of information on variants. China, however, has said that future mutations are likely to be potentially more transmissible but less severe.