Abrupt ban lift 'could trigger another wave'

Top News | Erin Chan 7 Apr 2020

A microbiologist has warned that a premature lifting of the social gathering ban could trigger another wave of community-based coronavirus infections.

The government enforced a two-week ban on gatherings of more than four people from March 29 and ordered venues - including cinemas, gyms and arcade centers - to close as early as 6pm on March 28.

But University of Hong Kong microbiologist Ho Pak-leung said on radio that the ban had not been strictly enforced as there had been zero prosecutions as of Sunday.

"There are still invisible transmissions in the community," Ho said.

"The government should strictly enforce the law on those who breach the gathering ban or else the chain of community transmission will keep expanding."

Ho also urged the government to make it mandatory for people to wear face masks in public places as this is effective in blocking droplets and viruses to an extent, according to scientific evidence.

"Now is a critical time and there are still lots of local coronavirus cases," he said.

The city has 915 confirmed cases of Covid-19 as of yesterday, with 368 of them local transmissions.

Ho cited two worrying instances involving a 93-year-old male patient, who contracted the virus at Pok Oi Hospital, and an infected female police officer who refused to put on a mask as Caritas Medical Centre medics drew blood from her.

"Regarding the case of the senior, is there a chance that he was infected by another confirmed patient who didn't put on a mask from the same ward?" Ho asked.

He said that if anyone refuses to put on a mask upon advice, little could be done to force them to do so.

Ho advised restaurants to shift from dine-in to takeaway deliveries to contain the virus's spread.

"The sooner the chain of community transmission is cut off, the sooner businesses will be able to resume their service," he said.

He emphasized that the city's quarantine facilities are far from enough in comparison with Macau.

"So far, there are 1,740 quarantine facilities, including the Chun Yeung Estate in Fo Tan," he said. "The government hoped that such a figure can be increased to 3,400, and will mainly rely on converting two more blocks of Chung Yeung Estate into quarantine facilities."

HKU's top virologist, Malik Peiris, said authorities should consider conducting random testing to see how many people have built up immunity to the virus, along with screenings for new infections.

"You don't have to test every single person," Peiris said.

"If you take an appropriate random sample of the population across age groups you certainly can extrapolate as to what's going on across the population."

But Peiris noted that developing such a test from scratch would face funding problems.

Gabriel Leung, dean of the HKU faculty of medicine, said a vaccine will take at least a year to develop.

"The vaccine is difficult to be manufactured within a short period of time," he added.

"Even though some scientists are currently developing vaccines, it is still a problem when it comes to their safety, effectiveness and the groups of people they target."


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