Hong Kong has two cases of the new variant detected in South Africa.


The Hong Kong government said Thursday it had detected two cases of a new variant identified in South Africa, which scientists say shows a “big leap in evolution” and could limit vaccine effectiveness.

The infections were detected in a man who had returned from South Africa to Hong Kong this month, and later in another man staying across the hall in the same quarantine hotel. (Hong Kong requires almost all overseas arrivals to be quarantined in hotels for two to three weeks.) The genetic sequence of the virus was identical in the two men, suggesting airborne transmission, according to the Center for City Health Protection. Both men have been vaccinated.

Further sequencing by the University of Hong Kong confirmed that the viruses belonged to the new variant from South Africa, officials said, although they acknowledged that information about the variant’s impact on the public health were “lacking for the moment”.

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Some Hong Kong experts have questioned the length and effectiveness of Hong Kong’s quarantines, noting that authorities have recorded several cases of residents of quarantine hotels apparently infecting people staying in other rooms.

In the case of the latest variants of infections, the government criticized the first man for not wearing a surgical mask when opening his hotel room door, as well as “unsatisfactory airflow” in the hotel. As of Friday afternoon, no cases of infection were reported in neighboring rooms.

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The presence of the new variant may complicate efforts to reopen the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. For months, Hong Kong officials have said the resumption of quarantine-free travel between Chinese territory and the mainland – virtually the only places in the world still pursuing a containment strategy that seeks complete eradication of the virus – is their top priority, even though the strategy has tarnished the city’s reputation as a global financial center.

Mainland officials said Hong Kong was not doing enough to control the virus, even though the city has only recorded two locally transmitted cases in the past six months. The continent has recently faced new domestic epidemics; On Thursday, the National Health Commission reported four new local cases there.

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Hong Kong No. 2 official John Lee said Thursday evening officials from the mainland told him earlier in the day that Hong Kong had “essentially fulfilled” the conditions to reopen the border. He said details still need to be worked out, including the introduction of a continental-style “health code” application that raised privacy concerns.

Asked by a reporter whether the new variant would delay reopening with the mainland, Lee only said Hong Kong officials “will ensure that adequate research and monitoring is carried out in this regard.”

“Of course, we have to manage and control any new risk,” he said.


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