The Hong Kong government said Thursday it had found two cases of a new variant identified in South Africa that scientists warned show a “big leap forward” and could limit the vaccine’s effectiveness.
The infections were found in a man who returned to Hong Kong from South Africa this month and then in another man who was staying across the hall at the same quarantine hotel. (Hong Kong requires almost all overseas travelers to be quarantined in hotels for two to three weeks.) The genetic sequence of the virus was identical in both men, suggesting airborne transmission, according to the city’s health center. Both men were vaccinated.
Further sequencing by the University of Hong Kong confirmed that the viruses belonged to a new variant from South Africa, officials said, although they admitted that there was “no information at this time on the health effects of this variant.”
Some Hong Kong experts have questioned the duration and effectiveness of the Hong Kong quarantine, noting that officials have documented several cases where residents of quarantined hotels appear to have infected people who stayed in other rooms.
In the latter case, the government blamed the first person for not wearing a surgical mask when opening his hotel room door, and for “unsatisfactory airflow” at the hotel. As of Friday afternoon, there were no reported infections in adjacent premises.
Having a new option could complicate efforts to open the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. For months, Hong Kong officials have stated that resuming quarantine-free travel between Chinese territory and the mainland – virtually the only places in the world that still adhere to containment strategies aimed at eradicating the virus entirely – is their top priority, even though that the Strategy damaged the city’s reputation as a global financial center.
Mainland Chinese officials said Hong Kong is not doing enough to fight the virus, although the city has recorded only two cases of local transmission in the past six months. The mainland has recently faced new internal outbreaks; On Thursday, the National Health Commission reported four new local cases.
Hong Kong’s No. 2 spokesman John Lee said Thursday night that mainland officials had told him earlier that day that Hong Kong had “largely complied with” the conditions for opening the border. He said the details still need to be worked out, including the introduction of a continental-style health code app that has raised privacy concerns.
Asked by a reporter if the new option would delay the opening on the mainland, Mr. Li said only that the Hong Kong authorities “will ensure proper research and tracking in this regard.”
“Of course we have to manage and control any new risks,” he said.