A medical worker handles a sample container. Mass testing for Covid-19 will soon get underway in Hong Kong. Photo: Xinhua

A mass testing program to identify asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers is set to begin in Hong Kong as soon as next week.

The government expects about five million people to voluntarily participate in the Universal Community Testing Program, which has raised concerns about privacy.

Social activists say people’s genetic information could be sent to the mainland for other research purposes.

“The Chinese government had set up a DNA database to surveil the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Where will the DNA data collected in Hong Kong be sent to? Will these data be destroyed after use?” asked Roy Tam Hoi-pong, a Neo Democrats Party district councillor.

Tam said the government had previously assigned Sunrise Diagnostic Centre Ltd, a subsidiary of the BGI Group, which was accused of collecting DNA information from the Uyghurs for surveillance purpose, to run tests on samples collected from high-risk districts in Hong Kong. He said it then assigned two more China-funded firms – KingMed Diagnostics and HybriBio Ltd – to run the program.

Tam said many people in Hong Kong would avoid being tested due to fears that their DNA information could be sent to the mainland.

Glacier Kwong, a Hong Kong political activist, wrote in an article that it would be naive to expect that the three Chinese testing firms would not send Hong Kong people’s DNA information to the mainland and use it for other purposes as their activities in the mainland would not be bound by Hong Kong’s Personal Data (Privacy) Ordinance.

A government spokesman said in a statement on August 13 that the program would only test for the Covid-19 virus. The spokesman said all testing would be conducted in Hong Kong and assured that specimens would not be sent outside the territory. 

The government strongly condemned online rumours suggesting specimens would be transferred outside Hong Kong, saying it was a deliberate effort to distort the facts to smear the program. It said all personal data and testing results would be disposed of within one month after the completion of the program.

Michael Huen, a professor at the School of Biomedical Sciences, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, University of Hong Kong, told the Hong Kong Citizen News in an interview that nasopharyngeal swabs, which collect more cells containing extracting genetic information than saliva tests, would be used in the program. Huen said researchers could determine the biological characteristics, including gender, race and eye color, but not the appearance or age of a person from their DNA information.

On Sunday, the government said it was going to hire 2,000 private doctors, nurses and dentists to help collect samples during the citywide Covid-19 testing. Medical staff will be paid HK$300 (US$38.7) per hour.

However, Henry Yeung, the president of the Hong Kong Doctors Union, told RTHK that he was concerned about a lack of personal protective equipment because the government said in an email that only gloves and surgical masks would be provided. Yeung questioned if the government would provide insurance for the medical staff in view of the infection risks they face.

He said medical workers from the private sector are invited to work at booths to be set up as early as next Monday in all 18 districts to take swabs from people who want to get tested but have difficulties using the throat and nasal swabs themselves, such as children and the elderly. He said the booths would be set up at community centers, playgrounds and some outdoor areas.

Professor Benjamin Cowling of the University of Hong Kong said on Monday that contact tracing is a much more efficient way to identify coronavirus cases than trying to test everyone in Hong Kong. He said testing everyone would only turn up about 100 to 200 cases.

“It would be a much more efficient way to find the majority of infected persons and then target those kinds of strategies, rather than just doing a scatter-gun approach of trying to do mass-testing,” he said.

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