Coronavirus: Leading virologist Malik Peiris says ‘absolutely not’ an outbreak at University of HK lab, believes researcher contracted virus in community

22-Sep-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Leading virologist Professor Malik Peiris, whose University of Hong Kong laboratory has conducted major Covid-19 research, on Monday rejected the idea it was at the centre of a possible new outbreak, telling the Post he believed an infected researcher contracted the virus in the community.

The Department of Health on Sunday said that 41 workers at the university’s school of public health facility, who were deemed close contacts of the researcher, had been put under quarantine, as 14 of 37 environmental samples taken in the work area came back positive.

We have tested all these people, and everybody around that area… they were all negative

Professor Malik Peiris

Peiris confirmed to the Post that the 28-year-old researcher, whose infection was announced by the Centre for Health Protection on Saturday, worked in his laboratory. But he believed the staff member acquired the infection in the community rather than in the lab.

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“She had been on leave before [testing positive], so there was no more likely exposure in the lab,” Peiris said. “She certainly acquired it in the community.”

Peiris said the staffer, who underwent weekly testing, was tested negative two weeks ago. She then went on leave for a few days, returned to work in the lab last Monday and went for a test on Wednesday, where her infection was detected.

He said even if the researcher had become infected at work, it was unlikely she would have tested positive just two days later.

Peiris said he had been out of Hong Kong for the past four weeks and was presently in Sri Lanka.

Apart from the coronavirus, the lab also conducts research into influenza viruses.

The health authorities on Saturday said the researcher helped with data entry and analysis of genetic sequencing of the coronavirus. Her case was classified as untraced, because she dealt with samples that were not contagious.

It is understood the facility is on the sixth floor of the Laboratory Block on Sassoon Road in Pok Fu Lam.

When asked whether there was a possible outbreak of the coronavirus in the lab, Peiris said “absolutely not”.

“We have tested all these people, and everybody around that area… they were all negative,” he said, adding that the researcher’s viral load was low.

The health authorities have distributed more than 300 specimen bottles to people working in the same building.

A source from the school said the researcher in question had not handled infectious materials in the past two weeks.

He added that those environmental samples returned positive for the coronavirus were mostly items touched by the researcher, including her office desk, chair and computer mouse, as well as her chair in the laboratory. Samples obtained from the pantry and door buttons were negative.

“The virus was mainly found in the office, where she ate,” the source said. “The viral level of those samples was very low.”

He admitted the progress of conducting research in the lab would be slower, but “essential services” would continue.

The news came as a medical source said the city was expecting just six new Covid-19 cases, while a government adviser hinted a further easing of social-distancing rules was possible.

If there are no new outbreaks linked to restaurants and eateries and the local case numbers remain low, further relaxation could be possible

Professor David Hui, Chinese University

Peiris has led major research into the virus in the city since the outbreak began, including confirming the world’s first infection of a dog, a 17-year-old Pomeranian, in March.

He was also granted government funding to conduct serological studies, as well as studies to gain better understanding of the antibody responses of Covid-19 patients that would contribute to wider vaccine development.

Meanwhile, Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory expert from Chinese University who advises the government on the pandemic, said there was a chance the government would relax social-distancing measures further to allow up to six people per table at restaurants for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival.

Presently the number of people allowed to eat together or gather in public is four.

“I believe the government will look at the situation, if there are no new outbreaks linked to restaurants and eateries and the local case numbers remain low, further relaxation could be possible,” Hui said.

However, he urged restaurants to ensure good air flow in the premises either by installing air conditioning with better filtration systems, or buying large ventilation fans.

Hui also said the recent rise in imported infections could be because of lower quality laboratories in other countries.

“But these people are Hong Kong residents as I understand, so we cannot stop them from returning,” he said. “The only way is maybe stopping flights for a few weeks if there are many confirmed cases from certain flights.”

On Sunday, the city recorded 23 new infections, the highest daily number in nearly a month. All but four of those were imported, prompting the government to suspend all Air India flights, and a regional Cathay Dragon route to Kuala Lumpur after several of their passengers tested positive.

The total number of confirmed cases in the city stands at 5,032, with 103 related deaths.


Category: Hong Kong

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