Top Hong Kong microbiologists have urged residents not to worry after health authorities on Thursday said “very high viral loads” had been found in sewage samples from a public housing estate in Kennedy Town. An overnight lockdown at the estate identified 22 Covid-19 cases.

Sai Wan Estate public housing
Sai Wan Estate. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

A total of 1,680 people at Sai Wan Estate underwent Covid-19 testing, authorities said on Friday. It marked a positivity rate of 1.3 per cent, which was significantly lower than during the peak of the fifth wave, when building lockdowns returned positivity rates as high as 20 per cent.

Sewage samples at the five-block estate earlier returned a high Covid-19 viral load, prompting the lockdown and the medical faculty of the University of Hong Kong (HKU) to issue a warning urging students and staff to refrain from dining in the area. The university’s main campus is roughly 1 kilometre away from Kennedy Town.

Temporary specimen collection statements were set up at the estate for residents to submit nasal and throat samples before 10 p.m. on Thursday.

It is unclear in which blocks the 22 positive cases were found. The Centre for Health Protection’s Chuang Shuk-kwan said in a regular Covid-19 briefing on Thursday that five infections had been recorded from the West Terrace block in recent days, involving four households on different floors.

The government also assigned personnel to visit around 630 households in Sai Wan Estate, of which 22 did not answer the door.

Hong Kong recorded another 294 Covid-19 infections on Thursday – 40 of which were imported – and one additional death. The epidemic has declined significantly in recent weeks, with daily cases fluctuating between 200 and 400 since the start of the month, down from more than 70,000 at the peak of the fifth wave in early March.

‘No need to worry’

While HKU warned on Thursday that there was “potentially a large Covid-19 cluster” in and around Kennedy Town, health experts said there was no need to panic.

On social media, the warning from HKU’s Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine was met with comments accusing the university of fearmongering.

Top HKU microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung said on a Commercial Radio program on Friday that 91 to 95 per cent of Hong Kong’s population were double vaccinated against Covid-19 or had already contracted the virus.

“We have already built up an immunity shield against severe [Covid-19] symptoms in our population, so there is no need to worry,” Yuen said.

Yuen Kwok-yung.
Yuen Kwok-yung. Photo: RTHK screenshot via Facebook.

Ho Pak-leung, also a microbiologist at HKU, said that as long as Kennedy Town residents were vaccinated, they did not have to be concerned about eating out in the area. He added that the anti-epidemic approach should focus more on boosting the city’s vaccination rate, and less on the results of sewage testing or contact tracing at specific places.

In an emailed statement on Friday, HKU’s medical faculty expressed regret over reports that its warning had caused panic and controversy.

But it defended sounding the alarm. “The spokesperson believes that sharing relevant internal messages to students and staff is responsible,” the statement read.

“We hoped that students and staff would receive the message before lunchtime and avoid going to the district to eat… leading to the chance of bringing the virus back to the hospital and other medical facilities.”

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Hillary has an interest in social issues and politics. Previously, she reported on Asia broadly - including on Hong Kong's 2019 protests - for TIME Magazine and covered local news at Coconuts Hong Kong.