Coronavirus: Cathay Pacific pilots’ infections show ‘highly similar’ genetic sequencing, as second ‘Delta Plus’ case emerges in Hong Kong

·8-min read

Two Cathay Pacific pilots whose Covid-19 infections sparked concerns over Hong Kong’s quarantine exemption policies have been confirmed to have the more transmissive Delta variant, with “highly similar but not identical” genetic sequencing.

The Centre for Health Protection on Thursday also revealed that a traveller who sat near the city’s first patient with the “Delta Plus” coronavirus variant on a flight also carried that strain, raising concerns over whether in-flight transmission had taken place.

The pilots, who were among Wednesday’s confirmed cases, had infections that belonged to a sub-lineage of the Delta variant called “AY.43”, authorities said.

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“Both of them were Delta strain with highly similar but not identical genetic sequences,” the centre said, adding the variant was commonly seen in Europe, especially in Germany, and the two might have been infected outside Hong Kong.

Professor Leo Poon Lit-man, who was involved in the genome sequencing analysis, said the findings suggested the pair could have caught the virus from the same source.

“If there are slight differences between them, we cannot rule out that they acquired the virus from the same source at the same time,” said Poon, head of the University of Hong Kong’s public health laboratory sciences division.

He added that if the virus had been passed from one pilot to another, the genetic sequencing should have been identical.

Residents wait to be tested in Discovery Bay. Photo: Felix Wong
Residents wait to be tested in Discovery Bay. Photo: Felix Wong

Genome sequencing by the centre also revealed that a 56-year-old man who arrived from Britain on November 1 and became a confirmed case on Sunday was the second patient in the city to carry the Delta Plus variant.

He was sitting in seat 2B on flight BA027, near the first Delta Plus patient, a 62-year-old man.

While epidemiological investigation was continuing, Poon said previous cases showed that in-flight transmission had taken place before.

Government pandemic adviser Professor David Hui Shu-cheong said not much data was available on the two Delta strain sub-lineages but there was “no need to be worried right now” because they had not been classified as a variant of concern.

Hui also said the Transport and Housing Bureau should re-examine its quarantine exemption policy. “If there are no changes, next time we may not be as lucky. Aircrew may need to undergo a short quarantine, maybe a week, to be safer,” he said, adding that health authorities also needed to monitor if there was a community outbreak linked to the pilots.

“If there are no local infections over the next 14 days, then Hong Kong can count itself lucky,” he said. “The case of the two pilots has already shown us that medical surveillance is not safe. They both had a viral load, which could lead to a fifth wave of Covid-19.”

The latest developments came as the city confirmed three more imported Covid-19 cases, travellers from the Philippines, Thailand and Saudi Arabia.

The additions took the tally of confirmed cases to 12,377, with 213 related deaths.

Thirty-seven recovered Covid-19 patients, meanwhile, were sent to the Dorsett Kwun Tong hotel, which has replaced the North Lantau Hospital Hong Kong Infection Control Centre as the designated venue for the 14-day, post-recovery quarantine now mandated by government policy.

Separately, a mother and daughter newly admitted to the government-run Penny’s Bay quarantine centre suffered burns to their hands from a fire in their room. The injuries were caused from the burning of fragrance oil.

The Canadians, aged 48 and 10, were taken to North Lantau Hospital at about 8pm on Thursday. Investigators found nothing suspicious about the incident.

ueues formed outside coronavirus vaccination centres, with eligible residents – currently the elderly and other high-risk groups – eager to boost their immunity against Covid-19 with a third jab.

An advisory panel is expected to discuss next Monday whether to lower the minimum vaccination age of the Chinese-made Sinovac shot, according to member Professor Lau Yu-lung.

Sinovac last month submitted an application to the government to lower the minimum age from 18 to three years old.

Next Monday also marks the start of the segregation at Hong Kong International Airport of passengers flying to and from mainland China from international travellers. The arrangement begins at 5am.

A total of 16,825 people received booster shots on Thursday, including city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee and Secretary for the Civil Service Patrick Nip Tak-kuen, who is in charge of the vaccination programme.

While the scheme has brought lines to vaccination centres again, Hong Kong’s overall inoculation rate is still flagging, with 69.2 per cent of the eligible population receiving a first dose.

I trust the vaccine and I want to support the community. One of my offices is in the Dongguan area and I haven’t been there in a year and a half. I certainly hope [the border] opens up for business

A 61-year-old businessman

The rate for those aged 80 or above who received a first dose stands at 17 per cent.

Speaking to the press outside the North Point vaccination centre, Nip said the government would decide when to open booster shots to other residents who had received two Sinovac doses more than six months ago, based on the reaction to the current round of jabs.

“Right now we are open to high-risk groups such as the elderly, medical workers and people with long-term illnesses,” Nip said. “Today is the first day, so we will look at the operation today, but we hope residents who can get their third jabs do it as soon as possible to increase protection.”

At the Sun Yat Sen Memorial Park Sports Centre in Sai Ying Pun, more than 100 residents were seen queuing for their third vaccine shot.

A 61-year-old businessman said he booked a slot as soon as it opened last Friday.

“I trust the vaccine and I also want to support the community,” he added. “One of my offices is in the Dongguan area and I haven’t been there in a year and a half. I certainly hope [the border] opens up for business.”

He said he had received the German-made BioNTech vaccine for his first two jabs, but still felt the need for higher levels of antibodies.

A walk-in recipient surnamed Ho, 59, had taken two Sinovac shots in April. She was hoping to get the BioNTech jab as her third in preparation for a visit to the United States, and was given the shot even though she did not fall into any of the vulnerable categories after showing her travel documents.

“I’m planning to go to the US for my Christmas holiday. It’s a high-risk country so I need more antibodies,” Ho said. “I’m very excited about it so I came on the first day.”

Another retired resident who had received shots of the American-made Moderna vaccine in the US more than six months ago had also visited the centre in the hopes of getting a booster.

“The research said they mixed well [with BioNTech] and it’s a good thing for you,” she said.

Separately, as the government looks to restrict the movement of local aircrew exempted from quarantine, Lee Wing-foo, vice-chairman of the Staffs and Workers Union of Hong Kong Civil Airlines, said he agreed authorities would need to look at ways to better guarantee the safety of other residents.

“Aircrew face the possibility of getting infected [with the coronavirus] even if they have taken extreme precautions. So the government should think of other ways, such as restricting where they can go,” Lee said.

But he admitted any restrictions would cause difficulties for airlines, and suggested the industry should arrange for backup manpower to be available.

The University of Hong Kong became the latest higher education institution to require those entering its campus to be fully vaccinated. According to an email sent to staff and students by Professor Ian Holliday, the university’s vice-president and pro-vice-chancellor, a Covid-19 vaccine mandate will be introduced from January 17, the first teaching day of the second semester.

“This will require everyone entering the campus to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19, or alternatively, to undergo weekly Covid-19 tests on a self-paying basis,” the email said, noting exemptions would only be given to people with medical proof showing they were not fit for jabs.

At least four other institutions – Chinese University, the University of Science and Technology, Baptist University and Polytechnic University – have similar requirements.

Additional reporting by Zoe Low

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