A microbiology research team at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) has managed to isolate the Omicron Covid-19 variant from clinical specimens, a breakthrough that will enable the development and production of vaccines against the new “variant of concern.”

HKU announced on Tuesday that a group of researchers from its Department of Microbiology had succeeded in isolating Omicron on Monday, the first known research team in Asia to achieve the result.

Immunofluorescence staining of uninfected and infected Vero E6 cells. The left shows an uninfected sample (the negative control). The middle and right show 48 hours post infection (see red fluorescent cytoplasmic antigen staining under confocal microscopy) Photo: Department of Microbiology, HKU.

The success came four days after Hong Kong confirmed two cases of Covid-19 involving the recently discovered variant, which is said to be highly mutated. The World Health Organization (WHO) has categorised Omicron as a “variant of concern,” as countries around the world reported cases.

The HKU microbiologists are now working on expanding work on the virus to help them assess its transmissibility, immune evasion capability, and pathogenicity using animal models. The research results may also be used for the urgent development and production of inactivated whole virus vaccines.

Leading microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, who led the HKU research effort, said they recognised the serious threat of the variant and “jumped into action immediately.” Other leading members of the team included Professor Honglin Chen and Dr. Kelvin To, Head of the Department of Microbiology.

Yuen Kwok-yung. File photo: Stand News.

“Isolating the variant is the first step in the urgent study of the variant,” he said.

As of Tuesday, Hong Kong has registered a total of 12,436 Covid-19 infections, while the death toll stands at 213. All of the six new patients arrived from high-risk areas, and four of them involved mutant strains. So far, Hong Kong has detected three Omicron cases.

Entry rules tightened

On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government announced tighter entry restrictions for inbound travellers from Japan, Portugal and Sweden, after those countries detected imported Omicron cases.

The three countries will be categorised as Group A – or high-risk – starting on Friday midnight, meaning foreigners who have stayed there within the past 21 days will not be allowed to enter the city. Hong Kong residents, on the other hand, must be fully vaccinated with recognised paperwork if they wish to board a flight for Hong Kong.

A Cathay Pacific aircraft parked in the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

They are required to undergo compulsory hotel quarantine for three weeks upon their return, and take six Covid-19 tests during that period. They must also get tested at a community testing centre on the 26th day after their arrival.

More stringent quarantine and testing rules were imposed on those arriving from Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, which have been listed as high-risk. The move aims to “maintain our vigilance,” the government said on Tuesday.

The “enhanced surveillance” includes placing inbound Hong Kong residents at the government-run Penny’s Bay Quarantine Centre for the first seven days of their arrival, before sending them to their pre-arranged designated hotel to complete the remaining two weeks of quarantine.

‘Blunt, blanket measures’

On Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticised countries which imposed “blunt” measures by imposing travel bans or entry restrictions in light of the detection of the Omicron variant.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. File photo: United Nations/Manuel Elías.

He said countries such as Botswana and South Africa, which discovered, sequenced and reported the new Covid-19 variant, are now “penalised by others for doing the right thing.”

“I well understand the concern of all countries to protect their citizens against a variant that we don’t yet fully understand,” Tedros said in his opening remarks at a WHO information session.

“But I am equally concerned that several Member States are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities.”

The WHO chief called for a “calm, coordinated and coherent” global response to Omicron, saying countries should take “rational, proportional risk-reduction measures” and ensure high-risk individuals are fully vaccinated immediately.

Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.