Hong Kong has recorded two infections with a newly identified coronavirus variant that has sparked international concern because its many mutations make it potentially more transmissible and able to evade an immune response.

The two patients both served a period of quarantine at the Regal Airport Hotel – with a traveller from South Africa, where the latest variant was first identified, found to have infected the person in the room next to him.

People wearing face masks in Hong Kong. File photo: GovHK.

Authorities said that following a whole genome sequencing analysis conducted by the University of Hong Kong (HKU), the new variant was confirmed in both cases.

HKU microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung visited the hotel on Tuesday and said the transmission probably occurred because the traveller from South Africa was wearing a facemask with an air valve – which purifies intakes of breath but not exhalations.

The government on Wednesday banned people undergoing compulsory hotel quarantine from wearing masks with “any exhalation valve or vent.”

Travellers arriving in England from six southern African countries including South Africa will have to quarantine following warnings about the variant.

No cases have been confirmed in the UK while 59 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana so far, according to the BBC.

The UK Health Security Agency has said that the variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus on which current vaccines are based.

It has mutations that could evade the immune response created both by prior infection and vaccination, and also those associated with greater infectivity.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Covid-19 technical lead, said that they “don’t know very much about this [variant] yet.”

“What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” she said.

Health code ‘ready’

Hong Kong is striving to put additional Covid safeguards in place so it can reopen the border with mainland China.

File photo: GovHK.

A Hong Kong “health code” system is expected to be launched in early December as the city prepares to resume quarantine-free travel with the mainland, the government announced on Thursday after officials returned from a meeting with Chinese authorities in Shenzhen.

Chief Secretary John Lee cited the mainland experts at the meeting as saying Hong Kong already met the conditions for border reopening, and that details on the implementation of the health code would be announced next week.

“Our initial idea now is that the Hong Kong health code will be used together with LeaveHomeSafe,” said Lee, referring to the government’s Covid-19 contact tracing mobile application. “Of course, in reality, the Hong Kong health code must be under a real-name system…”

Currently LeaveHomeSafe does not require users to register their names or phone numbers. From December 9, the use of the application will be made mandatory in 18 types of designated premises, including all restaurants.

It was not clear whether the Hong Kong health code will be made mandatory in the city or just required for travellers to the mainland.

Candice Chau

Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.