【明報專訊】In view of the emergence of a case of community infection involving a COVID-19 variant, the government has ordered restriction-testing in buildings, banning passenger flights from India, Pakistan and the Philippines to Hong Kong for 14 days at the same time. Because it is not yet clear how the patient concerned got infected, no one can know whether the mutant has already spread in the community and whether the measures of restriction-testing and flight bans can stop the spread of the variant in time. The sudden emergence of the variant augurs badly. Both the government and the public must heighten vigilance, make the best preparations and be prepared for the worst. The current variant case shows that there is still room for improvement in guarding against the import of cases. Still, the virus is all-pervasive, and there are always chances of slips however tight the gatekeeping is. Hong Kong is now trying to return to normality against the backdrop of pandemic storms outside the city. Although vaccines for the coronavirus are not a panacea, they are still the most hopeful way out. Citizens should not hesitate about receiving vaccination anymore.
The COVID-19 variants raging around the world have become the greatest uncertainty concerning the global pandemic. Research shows that some of the high-risk variants are 60% to 70% higher in transmissibility. In order to stop these variants, the Hong Kong government had already listed Brazil, South Africa, Britain and Ireland as ''extremely high-risk places''. Inbound travellers from these places must undergo compulsory quarantine in a designated quarantine hotel for 21 days. Still, the pandemic has continued to rage outside Hong Kong and the high-risk variants have spread all over the world. Over the past month or so, although local infections in Hong Kong have significantly eased off, many imported cases have been identified via quarantine, and there have been no shortage of variant cases. The danger is that Hong Kong could lose the battle having been on the defensive for so long.
The first confirmed case of the N501Y mutant strain that surfaced lately in Hong Kong's community involved a local Indian. Testing shows that he carried an extremely high viral load in his body. So far it is known that his girlfriend in Hong Kong has also been infected with the variant. As the infected man has visited Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui and dined at a restaurant in Cheung Chau, the authorities have immediately demanded people who have been to those places concerned on specific dates undergo mandatory testing. Furthermore, the Hong Kong government said that, as confirmed by arrival tests in Hong Kong, five or more passengers carrying the N501Y mutant had arrived from each of these countries over 7 days: India, Pakistan and the Philippines. That means the trigger point for invoking the ''place-specific flight suspension mechanism'' has been reached. Thus, the authorities have temporarily suspended flights from those places to Hong Kong and put these three countries onto the list of ''extremely high-risk places''. These measures will be preliminarily effective for 14 days. At the same time, the government has also announced tighter compulsory testing requirements for inbound travellers. Those who are from ''extremely high-risk places'' must conduct self-monitoring for seven more days even after completing 21 days of mandatory quarantine. They must also take a nucleic acid test again on the 26th day after arrival in Hong Kong.
The two patients whose infection with the variant is understood to have been confirmed have visited many places that are crowded with people. The coming two to three weeks will be crucial as to whether the mutant has spread in the community or not. During this period, all parties must heighten vigilance and take adequate precautions against the pandemic.
The race between virus mutation and vaccine modification is a marathon. We cannot wait til the invention of a ''panacea vaccine'' before deciding to have a jab. Hong Kong is lucky to have both the BioNTech and the Sinovac vaccines at hand now. Citizens should receive vaccination more swiftly.
明報社評 2021.04.20：變種病毒惡兆乍現 提高戒備嚴陣以待
■/ Glossary 生字 /
mutant /ˈmjuːtənt/：an organism with qualities that are different from other types because of a change in its genes
augur /ˈɔːɡə(r)/ well/badly ：to be a sign that sth will be successful or not successful in the future
emergence /ɪˈmɜːdʒəns/：the process of coming into existence