A doctor checks a Covid patient at the Wuhan Red Cross Hospital in China's Hubei province. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG – A trickle of Omicron cases is penetrating Hong Kong’s “zero Covid” defenses, worrying residents of a next viral wave and imperiling highly anticipated plans to reopen the border with the mainland later this month. As of Saturday, the city had identified 14 cases of the highly contagious variant.

At the same time, China reported 125 new Covid-19 cases for Friday, of which 89 were local, according to the National Health Commission. Reports noted that marked the biggest daily tally for local infections since November 30 when the country had 91 domestic cases. It wasn’t immediately clear how many of the cases recorded on Friday, if any, were Omicron.

The outbreak forced more than a dozen factories in China’s eastern manufacturing hub of Zhejiang province to close, according to reports.

The cracks in China’s “zero Covid” come as the new highly contagious variant first discovered in South Africa surges in the West, with particularly rapid upticks in cases seen in the United Kingdom and the United States. New York state broke a record in new daily cases on Friday with 21,027 new infections reported.

Australia’s populous New South Wales state reported a record 2,482 Covid-19 cases on Saturday, a day after easing international arrival rules for vaccinated travelers, indicating Omicron is likely taking hold Down Under. 

Hong Kong threatens to be an Omicron gateway into mainland China if the border is reopened. On Thursday, a 36-year-old Cathay Pacific cargo flight pilot was identified as infected with the highly contagious variant in Hong Kong. He arrived in the city from the United States on Monday and tested negative at the Hong Kong International Airport.

The deserted Terminal One of Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, ChristianSchd

He was exempted from a 21-day quarantine after arriving in the city due to the nature of his job. During a three-day enhanced medical surveillance period, he stayed at home at Cheung Hing Building, 44-48 Pitt Street, Yau Ma Tei. But on Wednesday, he went to a mobile testing station in his neighborhood for a Covid-19 test and some places to buy food.

When he arrived at the testing station, he developed symptoms on the same day with a cycle threshold (ct) value of about 25 to 29 and was immediately sent to quarantine. The pilot, who had been inoculated with two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on March 22 and April 15 in Hong Kong, carried the N501Y mutant strain but was negative for the L452R and E484K strains.

As the Department of Health suspected that the man could be carrying the Omicron strain, it issued a mandatory Covid-test order to six places, including a Wellcome supermarket at 40 Waterloo Road, a Starbucks coffee shop at 56 Dundas Street, a city superstore at the Gateway Arcade of Harbor City, a Circle K store at 50-52 Pitt Street, a Mannings shop at 494-496 Nathan Road and another Wellcome supermarket at 1 Kwong Wa Street. 

Prior to this, a mandatory test order has been issued to people who live in the Cheung Hing Building where the infected pilot resides. As of Friday, none of the 160 people in the building has tested positive. Cathay Pacific said the operating aircraft that the pilot flew had been sent for deep cleaning. It said all of its operating flight crew was fully vaccinated.

On Friday, two more Omicron cases were identified among cargo crew members of the same flight, which arrived in Hong Kong from Kenya, India and Uganda via the United Arab Emirates on flight ACP502. on Wednesday.

The duo included a 41-year-old and a 27-year-old man who had received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Moderna vaccine, respectively, in Kenya.

Earlier this week, the Hong Kong government declared that travelers returning from the United States and United Kingdom would have to spend a week of quarantine in spartan isolation camps and then serve another 14 days in a hotel room they pay for themselves.

The policy was implemented for the US after authorities discovered a single traveler with the Omicron variant who had flown into Hong Long from Los Angeles on December 7. 

A woman undergoes a Covid-19 test at a mobile specimen collection station in Hong Kong on May 3, 2021. Hong Kong officials are working on new measures to prevent the spread of the new variant. Photo: AFP / Miguel Candela / Anadolu Agency

Guangzhou, the sprawling mainland port city northwest of Hong Kong, reported its first local infection of Omicron on Friday, another indication the variant is starting to spread in China. The Guangdong province capital had placed an area under lockdown on Tuesday after a 67-year-old man, who returned from overseas late last month, was found to be infected.

On mainland China, all incoming travelers are required to be isolated at designated hotels for 14-days and stay at home for seven more days after their arrival. 

The patient first arrived in Shanghai on November 27 but repeatedly tested negative for Covid-19 during quarantine. He took a domestic flight to go back to his home in Guangzhou on December 11. On Monday morning, he tested positive with the Omicron strain.

Subsequently, the area where the man was living was locked down and residents were required to get tested twice in three days. On Thursday, a 70-year-old female neighbor was identified as infected with Omicron.

Since early this year, the Hong Kong government has tightened its anti-epidemic rules in a bid to facilitate a border reopening with the mainland. Before the advent of Omicron, it was expected that Beijing would announce the reopening after Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections are completed on Sunday (December 19).

On Saturday, a spokesperson of the Hong Kong government said the preparation of the border reopening scheme had entered the final stage. Michael Tien, a Roundtable lawmaker, also said the scheme would be announced very soon, pending Beijing’s final decision. 

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