Hong Kong launched a new response mechanism for infectious diseases on Saturday morning, setting it to “serious” level – the second in a three-tier scale – in response to the outbreak of an unidentified form of pneumonia in Wuhan city in mainland China.
This came as local experts called for more transparency from mainland health authorities in releasing patient details for assessment.
The World Health Organisation said it had activated its incident management system and was closely monitoring the outbreak of the disease in central China, where the number of cases reported rose to 44 on Friday.
The global health watchdog said Beijing had been in contact, and the country had an “extensive capacity” to respond to the incident. It noted measures were being taken, including investigating the cause, isolating patients, tracing close contacts and closing the seafood market at the centre of the outbreak.
In Hong Kong, the number of suspected cases reported had increased to eight on Saturday. But by evening, none of these were found to be the unidentified strain from Wuhan.
The local cases were mostly identified as flu or known virus strains that were not as threatening, according to health authorities and a source. Three patients remain in hospital in stable condition.
With the serious response level, the health minister will chair a steering committee to coordinate government response work, notify WHO of any locally confirmed cases, and activate an electronic platform for infection cases with the Hospital Authority.
“Upon risk assessment of the cluster of cases of viral pneumonia with unknown cause in Wuhan reported by the National Health Commission, the serious response level was activated,” a statement from the Department of Health on Saturday read, referring to the “preparedness and response plan for novel infectious disease of public health significance”.
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee also said: “Regarding the unidentified viral pneumonia … we find there is a need to have a better response and preparedness framework, therefore we launched this plan.”
Under the activated level, the immediate health impact on the local population is moderate.
Questions remained about whether the unidentified strain could spread between humans, even as Wuhan health authorities said initial investigation showed “no obvious evidence” of human-to-human transmission.
Infectious diseases expert Dr Ho Pak-leung from the University of Hong Kong, calling for officials to adopt “the most stringent” precautionary measures, said he suspected such transmission had happened among cases in Wuhan, noting that the number there surged from 27 to 44 in just three days.
Professor David Hui Shu-cheong, a respiratory medicine expert from Chinese University, said health authorities would need to find links between infected patients to prove such transmissions.
“You need to prove there was contact [between patients], and that the genetic sequences of the virus strains infecting those patients and their contacts are the same,” Hui said.
But Ho said information of Wuhan patients released by mainland authorities, which was key for risk assessment, was limited.
“The areas in which patients stayed, when the first case occurred, their time of visit to the seafood market, their age distribution – all these details are lacking,” he said, suggesting that the Hong Kong government send an expert team to Wuhan to understand the situation.
The areas in which patients stayed, when the first case occurred, their time of visit to the seafood market, their age distribution – all these details are lacking
Dr Ho Pak-leung, HKU
Health chief Chan said she would not rule out such a move, but noted that the current communication mechanism with the mainland city remained effective.
She added that the government planned to amend the Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance to include “novel infectious disease of public health significance” among items which all doctors must report to health authorities on. She hoped the amendment could be done in a few weeks’ time.
The government extended the criteria for surveillance on Friday, requiring everyone who had visited Wuhan within 14 days before the onset of the illness to report to health authorities if they have fever and respiratory symptoms. The initial requirement only covered those who went to wet markets there.
The Hospital Authority also implemented control measures, limiting visiting time for general acute wards to two hours a day, and banning visits to isolation wards except on compassionate grounds.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said there was no need to reduce the amount of trains and flights between Hong Kong and Wuhan.
While extra temperature-sensing devices have been added in the airport specifically for travellers from Wuhan, there are doubts whether there would be a loophole at West Kowloon, where officers only rely on existing gear for all passengers and use no specific screening equipment for trains from Wuhan.
“For flights from Wuhan, all passengers must have come from there. But high-speed rail passengers on trains from Wuhan might not all be from there [as there are other stops],” Chan said.
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang
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