HK should ban flights from southern Africa: expert

Infectious diseases expert David Hui on Friday said the government should consider following the UK’s example in banning flights from South Africa and five of its neighbouring countries in light of the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant in the region.

The professor, who advises the government on the pandemic, said there is currently not enough data to conclude how infectious the B.1.1.529 variant is, or how effective vaccines are against it.

“I think the WHO actually is having a discussion on this new variant. We need to have more information. At the moment, there are only three places with this variant reported. The number of cases is actually too small to have any meaningful analysis,” he said.

But Hui added that it is worrying to see that the variant has a large number of mutations.

“The new variant has 32 mutations just inside the spike protein. And also in the receptor-binding domain, there are another 10 mutations. So the number of mutations actually is a lot higher compared to other variants of concern,” he said.

Earlier this month the variant was found in Hong Kong in two people quarantined at the Regal Airport Hotel. One of them is believed to have brought it in from South Africa.

Hui said the SAR government should consider taking precautions to prevent the variant from spreading into the community.

“At the moment the UK is taking precautionary measures to ban flights from six south African countries with this new variant reported. I think the Hong Kong government should consider this, because we don’t know how aggressive this new variant will be,” he said.

But the expert said the fact that two people were diagnosed with the new variant in Hong Kong should not derail plans for the city to reopen the border with the mainland, as long as the variant has not spread into the community.

“New variants emerge with time in any place. As long as the new variant has not spread into the community, it doesn’t really affect the reopening the border between Hong Kong and mainland China,” he said.