Tighten up anti-Covid measures now, experts urge

Prominent medical experts have called on the government to immediately tighten social distancing measures to curb the spread of the Omicron variant, warning that a fifth wave of Covid-19 outbreaks could be imminent.

Officials had on Tuesday reported the SAR’s first untraceable Covid-19 case in almost three months, and say it’s very likely that the Tuen Mun resident had contracted Omicron.

Gabriel Leung, University of Hong Kong’s dean of medicine and a government advisor on the pandemic, said stringent measures must be put in place within 24 hours, warning that there could already be multiple ‘silent transmission chains’ in the community.

“There’s no time to waste. I think we need circuit-breaker measures and we have to be heavy-handed at the beginning when it comes to tightening social distancing measures. Otherwise we would be allowing the five to ten silent transmission chains to grow,” he told an RTHK programme on Wednesday.

He said the number of infections could increase exponentially if the government doesn’t act now.

Another government expert advisor, Ivan Hung, agreed there could be up to ten transmission chains by now, adding whether Hong Kong is already experiencing a fifth wave of outbreaks depends on whether more unlinked cases will emerge in different areas of the city in the coming few days.

He says schools may have to suspend classes again if the outbreaks get out of control.

“If there are many cases with unknown sources, or if the fifth wave could not be curbed, then perhaps we have to resume online classes, but of course we don’t want to see that,” said Hung.

Meanwhile, HKU microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung again called on people to be vaccinated.

“Some people criticised me. They say young people or children would not have serious symptoms, why do you tell them to get jabbed? We have to understand, we see in tests with guinea pigs or mice or even humans that Omicron only causes mild illnesses, but it won’t last,” he warned.

“Perhaps after six months a Pi variant may emerge and it may infect the lung. Then we will be in big trouble. Since we have not been baptised with Omicron, we won’t have the [immunity] protection in the mucosa of our nose, mouth or respiratory tract. We will be repeating what we went through in the past two years,” he said.

He said if vaccination rate exceeds 90 percent, Hong Kong would then have the necessary conditions to open up despite the presence of Omicron, as the variant would in most cases only cause mild symptoms and further boost the immunity of the community as a whole.

However, even in that scenario, he warned that it would be inevitable that some unvaccinated elderly and chronically-ill patients would die from Omicron infections.

HKU epidemiologist Ben Cowling said if it becomes clear that the outbreak cannot be brought under control quickly, pushing for more unvaccinated people to get jabbed should be a ‘top priority’.

“I would say [we need] to have a policy now where the focus is on vaccinating older adults, rather than giving third doses to people who’ve already had two doses or vaccinating younger adults, because of the serious issue of the low vaccine coverage in older adults in Hong Kong,” he said.