Top Hong Kong infectious disease expert urges all to get influenza shots to prevent co-infection, lung damage amid Covid-19 pandemic

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A top infectious disease expert in Hong Kong has called for all city residents to get vaccinated against influenza after he discovered during research that hamsters infected with both H1N1 and Covid-19 experienced markedly worse lung damage.

The University of Hong Kong’s infectious disease expert Professor Yuen Kwok-yung said the findings of the research he led implied that everyone should get influenza shots before the flu season to minimise the chances of a co-infection.

“As winter is approaching, there will be a co-circulation of both the viruses causing influenza and Covid-19 in our community,” Yuen said in response to the study published this month in the Clinical Infectious Diseases journal.

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Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, infectious disease expert at the University of Hong Kong. Photo: Dickson Lee
Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, infectious disease expert at the University of Hong Kong. Photo: Dickson Lee

The team of researchers infected some golden Syrian hamsters with both the influenza virus H1N1 and the Covid-19 virus SARS-CoV-2, and analysed their effects on the hamsters’ bodies in terms of weight loss and lung viral load.

“The amount of lung damage [and] inflammation are markedly worse with a co-infection,” Yuen said.

“It is even more interesting to note that the antibody response against SARS-CoV-2 is impaired by a co-infection.”

Co-infection with influenza can speed up replication of pathogen that causes Covid-19

Yuen said that every patient with an acute respiratory illness should be tested for both influenza and Covid-19. Those infected with influenza must be treated with antiviral drugs such as Tamiflu or Relenza as early as possible, he added.

The HKU scientists said in the research paper that they were expecting a rising number of co-infections this flu season.

The paper said the decrease in coronavirus cases in spring this year was not only due to the control measures introduced by the government, but was also caused by “the ending of the influenza season”.

Hong Kong was facing 73 new Covid-19 infections on Monday, the highest daily figure in about three months. As of Sunday, the city’s total number of confirmed infections stood at 5,628, with 108 related deaths.

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