A cluster of three people who were infected with the Alpha variant of Covid-19 has exposed a loophole in the quarantine system for incoming travelers in Hong Kong.
On Saturday, a 17-year-old secondary schoolgirl tested positive for the highly infectious N501Y mutant strain that was first detected in the United Kingdom. It was the first time the variant – labeled by the World Health Organisation as Alpha with a scientific name of B.1.1.7 – had been discovered in Hong Kong.
However, her sample tested negative to the E484K and L452R strains, which originated in Brazil and India, respectively.
The girl, who lives at Shing Yu House, Tin Shing Court, in Tin Shui Wai, developed a fever, runny nose, headache and loss of smell on June 2. She studies at the Queen Elizabeth School Old Students’ Association Tong Kwok Wah Secondary School at Tin Wah Road and attended a tutorial class at an industrial building at Tsun Wen Road, Tuen Mun.
She visited the Hong Kong International Education Expo held at the Convention & Exhibition Centre on May 29.
This new case also broke a 42-day streak of zero new untraceable local infections in the territory.
On Sunday and Monday, the girl’s 53-year-old mother and 20-year-old sister were found to be infected with the same variant. The mother did not show any symptoms, but her sister developed a fever, runny nose and diarrhea.
The 20-year-old visited a range of places in Tsuen Wan during her incubation period on May 29, such as Nina Mall 1&2, The Mills, D.Park shopping centre, Citywalk II and a restaurant at 75 Tai Pa Street.
She also went to K11 Musea and Eslite in Tsim Sha Tsui, a restaurant on the third floor of Hai Phong Mansion and the Dragon Centre in Sham Shui Po on May 23.
Citing the results of genome sequencing of the virus, the Centre for Health Protection said the cluster was unrelated to the previously confirmed cases reported in Hong Kong, as well as the recent cases identified in Shenzhen.
Gilman Siu, an associate professor at the Department of Health Technology, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said the 17-year-old girl’s virus sample had at least 10 mutants different from the previously identified UK variant, showing that the transmission could have gone through several generations.
Siu said the patients were probably infected by an incoming traveler due to a loophole in Hong Kong’s quarantine system.
Siu said the girl’s cycle threshold (CT) value was 18, while her mother’s was between 16 and 19, meaning they both had a large amount of coronavirus in their bodies. He said the cluster was much more infectious than the Indian engineer, who came from Dubai and triggered a virus outbreak in Hong Kong in April.
Infectious diseases expert Leung Chi-chiu said there was an urgent need to review Hong Kong’s quarantine system and break the transmission chain as early as possible because many people would soon return to the city for their summer holidays.
Leung said if this cluster triggered a large-scale virus outbreak, it would become the fifth-wave epidemic in the city.
However Ronald Lam, controller of the Centre for Health Protection, said Hong Kong was among the top places globally in terms of its strict quarantine requirements. He said people in Hong Kong should take the initiative to get vaccinated, otherwise the territory could suffer from outbreaks similar to those in Taiwan and India.
Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong representative in the National People’s Congress standing committee, said the possible “border-reopening” between Hong Kong and the mainland could be delayed by the new cases found in the territory.
Tam said if Hong Kong could significantly boost its vaccination rate, it was still hopeful that the border-reopening would be implemented step by step.
Presently, people from Hong Kong are required to be quarantined for 14 days when entering the mainland. Under the Return2HK scheme, Hong Kong residents are allowed to return to the special administrative region from the mainland without being isolated.
Since May 21, Guangzhou has reported a total of 80 Covid-19 cases. The Guangzhou Municipal Health Commission said people leaving the city must show proof of a negative Covid-19 test result within the past two days.
The Hong Kong government said it was suspending quarantine-free arrangements for Hongkongers returning from certain high-risk places in Guangdong province, including parts of Shenzhen experiencing a rising number of infections.
As of Sunday, about 2.64 million doses of vaccines had been administered in Hong Kong. Among them, 1.53 million people had received their first doses, while 1.11 million had their second ones.
In the 24 hours ending at 8pm on Sunday, about 39,300 people had received vaccinations and about 28,800 new vaccination bookings had been made online.
More people made their bookings after the government extended its vaccination program to cover mainland residents who are holders of the Exit-entry Permit for Travelling to and from Hong Kong and Macau, as well as the non-refoulment claimants and refugees, in late May.
The government said it was not ideal that only about 18% of teachers, 23% of care home staff and 3% of elderly home residents had received the jabs. On June 3, the government said it approved lowering the age limit for receiving the BioNTech vaccine to 12. It said it would consider sending outreach teams to schools to administer the shots.
Meanwhile, a total of 5,000 domestic workers had failed to go to Hong Kong after the territory suspended flights from the Philippines on April 20 due to virus outbreaks in the Southeast Asia country.
Kit-man Cheung, the chairman of the Hong Kong Employment Agencies Association, said the government should allow fully vaccinated domestic workers to come to Hong Kong to ease the labor shortage problem in the city.
Cheung said some Hong Kong employers had raised their salary offers to HK$9,000 (US$1,146) to hire a helper.
At present, the minimum wage for foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong is HK$4,630. Many employers are now paying between HK$5,500 and HK$6,000 to retain their domestic workers.