Health inspectors in PPE gear collect samples in a terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing’s municipal government is sticking to intrusive new rectal swab tests of inbound travelers for Covid-19 despite local discomfort and a diplomatic row involving Korean passengers.

Health workers at booths at Beijing Capital International Airport and around the city have performed the tests on arrivals and those already in quarantine.

This is because the Chinese capital is seeking to add a new layer to existing tests to screen out more asymptomatic virus carriers.  

Additional checks have also been unilaterally extended to passengers from countries such as South Korea who, until recently, were exempt from the layers of screening and quarantine under a travel bubble agreement between Seoul and Beijing. 

Earlier this month, such swab tests left tens of thousands of close contacts of patients in Beijing’s Daxing district squirming as local authorities scrabbled to mass-test people under lockdowns and order them to cooperate with the new intrusive tests.

Officials cited evidence that the pathogen could remain dormant in an infected person’s rectum and excrement even though no trace could be found in their respiratory tract. Now the city is reportedly expanding these tests to non-locals such as those from the Covid-hit Hebei, Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces and even overseas. 

A fresh row erupted last week when a group of Korean passengers were told to undergo the swab tests at Beijing’s Capital Airport after touching down but, amid a burst of mirth and horror, most reportedly refused.

Airport security staff were called in to maintain order amid the ruckus, and Seoul’s embassy in Beijing stepped in after getting calls for help.

Weibo posts and Chinese media reported that the Koreans ultimately agreed to be temporarily accommodated at a quarantine hotel to have stool samples collected. They were released shortly after returning negative results in repeated tests.

It has also been revealed by Korean media including news portal WowKorea that the country’s diplomats in China lodged representations about the “cesspool treatment” of the Koreans by airport health inspectors.

Seoul’s embassy has questioned if the Chinese government is unilaterally imposing additional testing on Koreans exempted from screening and quarantine when they enter China on a travel bubble visa meant to cut red tape and aid business trips. 

The Chinese Foreign Ministry is yet to respond. However, it is understood that Beijing’s municipal authorities did not communicate with the Foreign Ministry or foreign embassies before applying such tests to foreign arrivals at the airport. 

People standing below a board showing international arrivals, in the empty arrivals area at Beijing Capital Airport. Photo: AFP/Greg Baker
An airport worker wearing a mask and a protective goggle directs passengers to their gates at Beijing Capital International Airport. Photo: Handout

A WeChat user who claimed to be an immigration officer at the Capital Airport said in a post on Tuesday that they were once directed by city officials to assist health workers to guide foreign arrivals into washrooms and sealed-off cubicles to collect swab samples but following the row they had stopped such collections. 

Still, the official Beijing Daily and state broadcaster China Central Television both claim the new tests could increase the detection rate of infected people as the city fights a protracted flareup with a four-digit caseload since the beginning of the year. 

That said, Yang Zhanqiu, a deputy director at Wuhan University’s pathogen biology department, told the state-run Global Times that nasal and throat swabs remain more efficient as Covid is a respiratory disease.

“There have been cases concerning the coronavirus testing positive in a patient’s excrement, but no evidence has suggested it had been transmitted through one’s digestive system,” said Yang.

He also added that even in the thick of Wuhan’s contagion in February and March of 2020 the expert panel sent by the National Health Commission never recommended collecting rectal samples, unless from confirmed patients with diarrhea or other digestive complications.  

A CCTV news program also said on Sunday that such swabs would not be used as widely as other methods like nasal and throat swabs, admitting the technique was “not convenient.” It said people in quarantine or at-risk groups such as close contacts of confirmed cases and cured patients may still be subject to rectal swab checks as an extra measure to break hidden chains of infections. 

Chinese netizens are split over whether compulsory anal swab tests are tantamount to an intrusion on people’s privacy and if Chinese people may undergo similar checks when visiting Korea.

However, it is clear that Beijing’s cadres are taking no chances in keeping the viral resurgence at bay. Beijing is still reeling from a spike in outbreaks that hit Daxing and downtown embassy and entertainment districts like Chaoyang.  

The city is ramping up efforts to clear all cases in the run-up to the Lunar New Year break starting from February 12, or at least before the annual parliamentary session in early March. 

Next month, Beijing will let in thousands of deputies of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference from across the country. The visitors will presumably have been immunized with homegrown vaccines.

However, authorities will only hand out a limited number of press passes to foreign media outlets that already run bureaus and station staff in the capital city. It’s unclear who will and won’t be required to submit to anal swap tests.  

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