Editorial:Plug the loopholes of variant gatekeeping

【明報專訊】The number of new confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection in Hong Kong has remained low in recent days. Most of the cases were imported, and even the local cases had basically known origins. On the surface, the pandemic seems to have eased off. However, since six confirmed cases involving mutant strains have also emerged in the community and some of them are untraceable, there are still major malaises in the city's pandemic situation. In order to prevent the situation from developing into another wave of outbreaks, the government must adopt measures as quickly as possible to break the transmission chains of mutant strains. Furthermore, as the release of variants into the community shows that there are loopholes in the anti-pandemic and quarantine measures concerning inbound travellers, the government must take a thorough review and plug the loopholes. Only then can the anti-pandemic achievements be reinforced and can it be ensured that the pandemic will not worsen repeatedly, thus enabling the entire city to come out of the predicament gradually.

Up till now, there have been six cases of COVID-19 variant infection. The latest case involved a 28-year-old housewife who arrived from India in Hong Kong on April 4. She had finished quarantine and had stayed active in the community for at least seven days before infection was confirmed. The case has raised concern about whether transmission chains have already formed. All of the other five cases involved a South African variant. But after genomic sequencing, experts have confirmed that the DNA of the variant that has infected a Filipino maid working at Kennedy Road is significantly different from that of the other four cases, thus ruling out the possibility of transmission between that case and the other four. Furthermore, experts who have examined all aspects concerning the maid believe that she might have been infected with the variant at her place of origin. But since she stayed in the community for at least six days before being confirmed of infection, experts do not rule out the possibility that there is now another invisible chain of variant transmission in the community.

As for the other four South African variant cases, the confirmed infections in chronological order are as follows: a man of Indian descent was first confirmed of infection, then his female friend; next the case of a 39-year-old Filipino maid working at Tung Chung was confirmed, after which a 10-month-old girl that she babysits was also confirmed of infection. According to established facts, the maid as well as the Indian man and his female friend had visited the Citygate Outlets shopping centre in Tung Chung on the same day. It was the only common place that they had been to, but that was already enough to cause transmission of the variant and infection. That shows the formidable transmissibility of the variant.

From the circumstances mentioned above, one can tell there are at least two chains of variant transmission in the community. One is related to the maid at Kennedy Road, and the other, the Indian man and his female friend. COVID-19 variants are more transmissible and more toxic. The recent escalation of the pandemic in India to catastrophic levels has been related to these mutant strains. If the invisible chains of variant transmission in Hong Kong cannot be broken in time, one cannot rule out the possibility that there will be a spike in confirmed cases in a short period of time.

Of the six people with confirmed variant infection, the Kennedy Road maid, the Indian man and the 28-year-old housewife whose case was lately confirmed had all undergone quarantine at designated hotels. They all had tested negative several times during quarantine and were confirmed to have a positive test only after they had finished quarantine and been released into the community. At this moment, the system design of the current 21-day mandatory quarantine arrangement for travellers arriving in Hong Kong does seem up to the task. The loophole is highly likely to be in the process of operation and implementation. For example, are test samples collected effectively? Are the testing procedures up to the standard required? The government must set strict requirements for the organisations that carry out the outsourced testing. There should also be an effective monitoring mechanism to make sure that the testing and the quality of laboratory work meet the requirements.

明報社評 2021.05.04:追蹤接觸者堵塞漏洞 防變種病毒爆發疫情






■/ Glossary 生字 /

loophole /ˈluːphəʊl/:an ambiguity or inadequacy in the law or a set of rules

ease off:to become less serious or severe

established /ɪˈstæblɪʃt/:recognised and generally accepted


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