There is no need for Hong Kong to conduct a second round of mass testing even if Hong Kong is hit by another wave of Covid-19 in the winter, given better strategies are available to contain the disease, according to health experts.
Despite the effort leading to 1.78 million people, around a quarter of the city’s population, being screened during the two-week effort that ended on Monday, they questioned the effectiveness of the approach in cutting transmission links in the community.
The scheme, which has uncovered 32 new cases, was partly funded by the central government, but the total cost has not yet been disclosed.
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More than 6,000 Hong Kong medical professionals and students collected samples at about 140 centres initially, before the number was scaled down to 57.
Four testing firms with links to the mainland have been involved in the programme, with one having established a temporary laboratory to process up to 300,000 samples a day.
Although the scheme aimed to identify asymptomatic coronavirus patients and cut the transmission chain in the community, it quickly became politicised due to mainland involvement. Public mistrust in the central government was already high due to the adoption in late June of the Beijing-imposed national security law.
Opinion has been divided on whether the mass screening was a wise use of resources, with medical experts concluding latest data showed the scheme might not effectively cut local transmissions.
Experts believed that with the possible arrival of a fourth wave in winter, such mass testing would not be required if the government could identify cases at an early stage, quickly conduct contact tracing and carry out screening of groups hit by outbreaks.
Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, an infectious disease expert at the University of Hong Kong, suggested the city’s more than 70 public outpatient clinics should offer free testing for people with minor symptoms without the need to first see doctors. Only 22 currently have such an arrangement.
“When you catch all these cases early with efficient contact tracing, then there is no need to do any mass community testing at all,” Yuen said. He agreed that sampling so many of the city’s roughly 7.5 million people was “very representative”. But he also raised concerns over the more than 5 million who had not been tested.
“It is not feasible to rely on universal testing to cut the silent transmission,” said Dr Leung Chi-chiu, a specialist in respiratory medicine. “Even though we managed to detect cases that had shown symptoms, it took around three to four days to generate results.”
While the daily number of reported cases has dropped from a peak of more than 100 in late July to a figure hovering between single and double digits recently, untraced cases continue to regularly emerge.
Before the programme launched, health minister Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said an estimated 5 million people would sign up. The figure was later clarified by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor as the capacity of the scheme, and that no target had been set.
Officials estimated the city had about 1,500 silent carriers of the virus last month. Professor Gabriel Leung, dean of HKU medical school and an adviser on the government’s pandemic response, also projected 494 people would be found infected if the entire population were tested.
But experts and officials believed the latest data reflected the recent easing trend of the epidemic.
Secretary for Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who oversaw the scheme, said on Monday the turnout rate had already reached the government’s target.
But Yuen, who also advises the government on its Covid-19 strategy, said the testing was not held at the most ideal time to discover more cases.
“The mass screening would have been more productive when we have over 140 cases per day,” Yuen said, adding he believed there were logistical reasons for the delay of the programme.
“People would only come to get tested when they are afraid, [at a time] when there are over 100 cases per day.”
Government adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong from Chinese University said the programme managed to identify patients who were still infectious and cut some transmissions. But the politicisation of the programme had driven some people away from the testing.
“Some people worried that their DNA information would be taken away [without consent], ” Hui said.
Some opposition groups and activists, including Joshua Wong Chi-fung and the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, had called for a boycott of the programme. They criticised the mass testing as ineffective if a stay-at-home order was not implemented.
Nip said the cost of the programme would be revealed to the public after it was over.
More from South China Morning Post:
- Hong Kong’s two-week mass testing scheme ends with at least 32 Covid-19 carriers identified overall
- Hong Kong reports 13 new Covid-19 cases, reaches grim milestone of 100 deaths
- Coronavirus vaccines could be ready for Hong Kong next April, while social-distancing curbs may remain for rest of 2021, government health adviser says
- Coronavirus: Hong Kong to relax social-distancing rules as it reveals travel bubble talks with countries such as Japan, Thailand, Germany
- Fifth of Hong Kong residents take part in coronavirus test scheme, as city records just three local Covid-19 cases out of 12 confirmed
This article Hong Kong third wave: no need for second round of mass screening, health experts say first appeared on South China Morning Post