Belgium will soon start testing the wastewater from flights coming from China to gather more information on the possible spread of new Covid-19 variants, announced Federal Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke on Monday.
Following the recent Covid-19 outbreak in China at a time when the country's residents will be allowed to travel abroad again, Belgium wants to use a new technique to combat the possible spread of Covid-19 variants by testing the wastewater of flights coming from the country.
"What is happening today in China is dramatic," Vandenbroucke said during a press conference. "Many people there become seriously ill and die: that should worry us. But we have received opinions from the experts, and they are unanimous and practical: what is happening in China does not immediately put us at great risk here and now, thanks to the fact that we have vaccinated en masse."
Still, he announced two measures. Firstly, the wastewater from direct flights from China arriving at Brussels Airport Zaventem (two per week) will be examined for the presence of Covid-19. "This will allow us to study the genome of the virus to detect any variants. All European countries should do that. Several other countries – such as the United States, Australia and Malaysia – are also considering the measure.
Secondly, Belgium's testing strategy will also be changed. From now on, people who have been in China in the last seven days and are showing symptoms will be required to do a rapid test, and a PCR test if possible. "Those tests will also be sent to a lab, where they can be sequenced to detect any variants," Vandenbroucke explained.
He added that the aim is not to necessarily stop Covid, but to be prepared to deal with possible unknown variants. "A mandatory Covid test for all travellers from China coming to Belgium would not make much sense, given the size of the country and the few direct flights from there."
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Vandenbroucke stated that it could be useful to ask for a mandatory test for all travellers coming from China, but only if all EU Member States coordinate their effort. "To be effective, we must then reintroduce the Passenger Locator Form (PLF) to allow follow-up of people coming from China."
He stressed that washing your hands, staying home when sick, wearing a face mask and keeping away from vulnerable people when coughing, ventilating your home and getting vaccinated remain the most important preventative measures. "These still stop circulation of the virus and also protect against Covid, flu and RSV."
On Tuesday, Belgium's Superior Health Council will also meet on the issue, before the EU-level Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) on Wednesday, where Vandenbroucke will propose a coordinated approach.