Coronavirus: HK experts warn mutated strain could be spreading after city orders hundreds more into quarantine

06-May-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 5:02 AM Print This Post

Fears are mounting in Hong Kong over the spread of a mutated coronavirus strain that has prompted authorities to order the quarantine of hundreds of residents across three districts.

As the city confirmed six new cases on Wednesday, local health experts warned the virus could already be spreading within the community, after two domestic helpers with no recent travel history tested preliminary-positive for the N501Y strain the day before.

Another helper living in Tsuen Wan, whose infection with the new variant was only detected a month after her arrival in the city, has been classified as a potential local case with an unknown source.

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“The two preliminary-positive cases appear to be friends who work in different districts but travelled to other places to eat together during their infectious period,” University of Hong Kong microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung told a radio show on Wednesday.

“Could there be a transmission chain there? The biggest worry is if a superspreader cluster appears, then things would get out of hand,” Ho said.

The latest infections prompted the evacuation and quarantine of the occupants of more than 200 flats in Block R of Allway Gardens in Tsuen Wan on Tuesday night. Residents in 230 units of Block N2 at Kornhill Gardens and 30 units of the Royalton, where the two other helpers who tested preliminary-positive lived, were being tested and sent to government quarantine centres on Wednesday.

The N501Y mutation has health officials particularly worried, as it has been linked to more transmissive variants, including those first identified in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.

So far, 10 variant cases have been detected in the community, of which at least seven were classified as local infections.

The helper in Tsuen Wan was among four new cases confirmed on Tuesday.

Also among the recent cases was a housewife who returned from India about a month ago, and whose infection with the N501Y mutation triggered the quarantining of all residents of her Tsim Sha Tsui block on Monday night. It took a month for her infection to be revealed.

The Department of Health said that testing firm BGI, which has been embroiled in several performance controversies, was responsible for the woman’s screenings during her quarantine at the Regal Oriental Hotel. The department said it was highly concerned about the quality of specimen collection and testing done by its contractors.

The city’s tally of confirmed infections currently stands at 11,790, with 210 related deaths.

If we allow the virus to remain in the community, especially over the coming Mother’s Day weekend, it could lead to an even worse fifth wave of infections

Dr Leung Chi-chiu, infectious diseases expert

Infectious diseases expert Dr Leung Chi-chiu on Wednesday said while the original source of the two friends’ infections might have been imported, the fact they contracted it locally meant there was a greater chance it had begun to spread in the community. He urged the government to step up contact tracing and arrange for more testing to uncover other potential carriers with long incubation periods.

“If we allow the virus to remain in the community, especially over the coming Mother’s Day weekend, it could lead to an even worse fifth wave of infections,” he said.

However, Leung said the domestic helper in Tsuen Wan and the Indian housewife, both with recent travel history and found to be carrying the N501Y strain, were more likely to have contracted the virus before arriving in Hong Kong.

“They both already carried antibodies for the coronavirus, which suggests they could have been sick for more than a week,” Leung said. “As their viral load was also very low, it’s likely they had already been sick and were recovering, and retested positive from the remaining traces of the virus,” he said.

Their infections were not picked up at the airport, because Hong Kong did not test for antibodies upon arrival, he explained, adding they were unlikely to be highly infectious as their viral load had not increased.

Leung said there would be more similar cases if the city did not ban travel from other high-risk locations, and called a government suggestion to decrease quarantine for vaccinated travellers a dangerous move.

There was no scientific basis for reducing the quarantine, as none of the vaccines could reduce the virus’ incubation period, he said, cautioning that any loophole could allow the coronavirus to spread in the city again.


Category: Hong Kong

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