UKHSA begins testing arrivals from China to enhance detection of new variants

F.P. Report

LONDON: From this week, UKHSA launches a new COVID-19 surveillance programme, sequencing positive COVID-19 tests from a sample of passengers flying in from China to Heathrow.

This ‘on arrival’ coronavirus (COVID-19) testing will help strengthen the UK’s ability to rapidly detect potential new variants circulating in China.

The programme will offer swabs to perform PCR tests to up to 20% of arrivals from selected flights. Positive tests will then be sent for sequencing and analysis. Anyone offered a test is encouraged to take it up, though this testing is not mandated for arrival.

Samples will be processed by existing UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) testing laboratories. Passengers will receive their test results via text or email. Positive samples will go on for genomic analysis for detection of variants. If a positive test is returned, passengers will be advised to follow existing UKHSA guidance, living safely with respiratory infections.

In order to gather further genomic data, UKHSA has also asked NHS services to identify any patients hospitalised with COVID-19 who have a travel history which includes China in the preceding 14 days. All positive samples from hospitalised patients with this travel history will be prioritised for sequencing.

Any sequences obtained will be analysed for new or emerging variants and also be uploaded rapidly onto open access databases, including GISAID, so that the UK can continue to contribute to global health knowledge and security.

Professor Susan Hopkins, Chief Medical Adviser at UKHSA, said:

Testing passengers on arrival from China will allow UKHSA to rapidly detect any potential new variants that have not yet been picked up through international surveillance.

The evidence so far suggests that the recent rise in cases in China is due to low natural immunity and low vaccine uptake, but this extra data will allow us to keep the situation under review.

COVID-19 remains highly prevalent here in England too and it remains important to try to stay at home if you are unwell, wash your hands regularly, and try to keep rooms well ventilated. Remember the best protection is to get your booster jab if eligible.

The government has already announced that people flying from mainland China to England will need to show proof of a negative COVID-19 pre-departure test taken no more than 2 days prior to departure.

Airlines will be required to check all passengers from China have negative pre-departure tests, and passengers will not be able to board a flight without providing evidence of a negative test result.