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A study published on Saturday (May 1) revealed that the genomes of the latest two mutated Covid-19 infections in Hong Kong are identical to the first variant case identified in the population, raising concerns about the existence of invisible transmission chains in the region.

The news came as the Philippines’ top diplomat in the region, employers, and staff criticized the government’s plans to curb the spread of the mutated strains by forcing foreign domestic workers seeking work visas or contract renewals to get vaccinated. On Saturday, the city reported eight new infections, all of which were imported. A total of five preliminary cases have been registered.A 39-year-old domestic helper – the city’s first untraceable local case involving a mutated strain – and the 10-month-old baby she looked after had the same genome as a 29-year-old man visiting from Dubai who was confirmed to be contaminated with a new variant two weeks ago, according to a Polytechnic University sequencing analysis.

Gilman is a writer who lives in New York The three pathogens all carried the B.1.351 variant, and their similar genomes indicated they had transmission connections, but not generally a direct spread, according to Siu Kit Hang, an associate professor at the university’s department of health technology and informatics.

“If it’s not a direct spread, then it’s more worrying that there are some cases in between. It will mean there are invisible carriers of this variant walking in the community,” he said, adding he could not conclude how many infected people might have been involved.

Since arriving in 2019, the helper had not left the city and had been living in her employer’s flat in Tung Chung, while the man from Dubai had remained in Jordan. The B.1.351 strain, which was first discovered in South Africa in December, is thought to be 50% more transmissible than the initial form of the virus, according to some scientists. So far, it has been discovered in at least 68 countries.

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The genomes of the man, the helper, and the baby were different from those found in another domestic worker in Mid-Levels who was reported to be carrying the mutated strain.

“The helper who lived on No 8 Kennedy Road was only spotted after she had entered the community, so we can’t rule out there are more than one transmission chain involving the South African variant,” he said.

Professor David Hui Shu Cheong, a Chinese University respiratory medicine specialist and government pandemic consultant, believes the virus was transmitted to the helper via secondary transmission because the two patients were not in the same place.

“We are lucky that many people in the community are still cautious,” Hui said. “They wear masks and clean their hands frequently, so we still haven’t seen a big outbreak so far.”

Hui warned that finding those who had already been infected would be difficult because many newly infected cases were asymptomatic, and urged residents not to relax their guard.

During his incubation time, the man who stayed at a friend’s flat in Jordan’s Parkes Building had visited multiple locations in Tsim Sha Tsui and Cheung Chau, while the helper stayed mostly in Tung Chung and visited a church in Tsing Yi. Professor Yuen Kwok Yung, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Hong Kong, said the city needed to figure out how the variant got into the population.

Yuen suggested that authorities perform antibody tests on those who were quarantined at hotels but tested negative, especially at the Ramada Hong Kong Grand Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, where the 29-year-old man was quarantined, to see whether the earlier screenings had missed anyone.

He added that a follow-up investigation into their whereabouts would be needed.The total number of confirmed cases in the city is 11,782, with 210 associated deaths following the death of a 70-year-old woman. On Saturday, four new cases were discovered in Indonesia, two in India, and one each in the Philippines and Cambodia.

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Since arriving in 2019, the helper had not left the city and had been living in her employer’s flat in Tung Chung, while the man from Dubai had remained in Jordan.The B.1.351 strain, which was first discovered in South Africa in December, is thought to be 50% more transmissible than the initial form of the virus, according to some scientists. So far, it has been discovered in at least 68 countries.

The government has ordered mandatory vaccination plans for all international domestic workers seeking job renewal in the city and those planning to come, citing the helper’s case as a “risk-based decision,” according to the health minister. International domestic employees should not be required to get vaccinated, according to the Philippines’ top diplomat in Hong Kong, Raly Tejada.

“My consulate has been supportive of Hong Kong’s free and voluntary vaccination programme and has actively campaigned for this. However, our nationals need not be forced to take the vaccine since I believe that they are capable of doing the right thing,” the consul general said.

“If vaccination becomes a provision to work in Hong Kong, then its application should be non-discriminatory and therefore must not only include [foreign domestic workers] but other non-resident workers who are similarly situated so that there is no feeling of being singled out.”

Domestic workers’ organizations cautioned that fewer domestic workers would be able to work in the region, while agencies hoped they would be vaccinated in time to retain their jobs. Employers, on the other hand, were concerned because if the workers were sick as a result of the vaccinations, they would be kept liable.
“We demand the Hong Kong government answer why we are being singled out. Why do the policies only apply to migrant workers?” said Dolores Balladares, chairwoman of the United Filipinos in Hong Kong.

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However, Hong Kong’s health minister, Professor Sophia Chan Siu Chee, stated that the authorities have no plans to target the 370,000 foreign domestic workers who work in the city.

“We will never label any specific groups,” Chan told a local radio programme. “Throughout our fight against Covid-19, confirmed cases were young and old and had different occupations. It was a risk-based decision.”

According to the Labour and Welfare Bureau, those medically unfit for vaccination would be exempted from the provision, while employers would be required to provide free medical care to their employees during their stay in Hong Kong in accordance with the standard employment contract.

Since the city’s inoculation campaign started in late February, approximately 936,400 people, or 12.5% of the city’s population, have received their first dose of coronavirus vaccine, with another 517,989 receiving their second dose.
On Friday, the Hong Kong government requested that all city helpers be screened by May 9. Thousands of international domestic workers queued for hours in 29-degree heat at Victoria Park on Saturday afternoon for their mandatory Covid-19 exam. The park is one of 14 new mobile testing stations revealed on Saturday, in addition to the government’s 21 neighborhood testing centers. At a few of these locations, there were also long lines.
Helpers are being discriminated against, according to a 33-year-old Indonesian who has lived in the city for ten years.
“I don’t think this is fair, why only domestic helpers? Ninety per cent of Covid-19 cases are Hong Kong people, why not all [get tested]?” she said.

Source: South China Morning Post

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