Hong Kongâ€™s chief executive has pledged to secure a Covid-19 vaccine for city residents as soon as it becomes available via a worldwide procurement push that is already under way, and has sought the central governmentâ€™s help to make it a reality.
The city is set to begin a two-week testing programme on September 1, amid a recent downward trend in coronavirus cases, with 27 new infections officially recorded on Friday.
Now eight months into the local battle with the coronavirus, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her ministers on Friday said the government was finally seeing progress on the vaccine procurement front.
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â€œWe understand the virus will not be eliminated unless there is an effective vaccine. We have reserved resources to procure vaccines from companies that have potential,â€ said Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, the cityâ€™s health minister.
The government has joined the World Health Organizationâ€™s COVAX programme, which is pooling funds from numerous countries to develop a Covid-19 vaccine and distribute it equitably around the world.
But they were simultaneously looking at different companies worldwide in the hope of procuring vaccines in advance, and seeking assistance from the central government, Chan said.
Regarding the coming universal testing, any resident without symptoms and above the age of six will be able to register online providing their name and contact information as well as their preferred swabbing station and time slot.
Tests will be conducted through a mixture of nose and throat swab tests. The trained doctor, nurse or dentist administering the test will be given a bottle with a barcode representing the subject, meaning no one apart from the Department of Health will know their identities.
Persons with positive results will be contacted by the department directly while those who test negative will be notified via text message.
In all, there will be 150 swabbing stations set up citywide and open from 8am to 8pm each day.
Testing will take at most two weeks, but it remains uncertain if enough people will join the scheme to make it effective. Health minister Sophia Chan said she hoped at least 5 million people would take part.
We are living in an abnormal social environment, in which whenever the government tries to do something, there will be people conspiring, smearing
Carrie Lam, chief executive
â€œThe more tests we do to identify more cases, the less we have to worry about,â€ she said.
That message was repeated by Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, secretary for civil service, who stressed that privacy would be respected.
â€œThe tests will only be carried out in the city, and neither the personal details or the specimen bottles will be sent outside the city,â€ Nip said.
â€œWe know the programme is voluntary, but we hope the public can participate activelyâ€¦ so that we can identify more hidden cases, and cut off the transmission chain earlier,â€ he said. â€œFor yourself, for your beloved ones, and for those medical workers, please participate.â€
But Lam stressed that there was not a particular target being set in terms of percentage of population.
â€œWe do not have a target. I have to clarify the health minister was just mentioning a [5 million] capacity, instead of a targetâ€¦ especially as we are living in an abnormal social environment, in which whenever the government tries to do something, there will be people conspiring, smearing, trying to split up society,â€ she said.
â€œI hope the media can be objective and positive to report on this, and to encourage the public to participate.â€
She added even before citywide testing was announced, the capacity of some private laboratories had already increased to tens of thousands a day, meaning most of the high-risk groups identified were able to undergo tests.
â€œWe hope everyone can remain patient, as the following week will be key. We will closely monitor if the decreasing trend of confirmed cases continues,â€ said Lam, adding the government hoped to soon finish testing for domestic workers and employees at the cityâ€™s port terminals, the most worrying recent clusters.
If the situation continues to improve, she said the government might consider loosening restrictions on nighttime dining at restaurants as well as a partial reopening of establishments such as beauty parlours and cinemas.
Apart from the community testing, Lam said community treatment facilities at the AsiaWorld-Expo centre would be expanded with the help of the central government and a new temporary hospital built in an area next to it, providing up to 1,800 beds.
The expansion would be finished within weeks, while the new hospital would take several months to complete, she said.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory medicine expert, said the testing scheme â€œwould not be much useâ€ if a significant number of the cityâ€™s population did not get screened.
â€œIf only some 1 million people participate, the samples canâ€™t represent the whole population. There could still be many invisible chains of infection that we canâ€™t track,â€ he said on a radio programme on Friday.
Hui said social-distancing measures could be relaxed only if cases returned to single figures, and those of unknown origins dropped significantly.
Dr Ho Pak-leung, a University of Hong Kong microbiologist, said offering weekly testing for high-risk groups would be more effective in combating the virus, compared to citywide testing over two weeks.
He suggested highest priority should go to inpatients at public hospitals, frontline staff for the Hospital Authority, and care workers which could take up around 15,000 tests a day.
â€œTesting them would be much more effective than testing members of the public who are mostly asymptomatic with lower risks,â€ he said.
â€œYou have to aim at some targets, otherwise you are just wasting bullets.â€
Hong Kong recorded 18 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, partly because of the suspension of samples collection on Wednesday due to Typhoon Higos.
The number of confirmed cases stands at 4,631, with 75 related deaths, including three on Thursday two women, aged 72 and 92, and a man, 71.
Category: Hong Kong