Hong Kong's surprise Delta case is another blow to Covid Zero push

Members of the public receive Covid-19 PCR tests in Hong Kong on Jan 13, 2022. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - Hong Kong's Covid Zero strategy - already strained by an outbreak of Omicron cases - is now facing the risk of the Delta variant silently spreading after a pet shop worker unexpectedly tested preliminary positive.

The 23-year-old woman, who works in the shopping district of Causeway Bay, developed a runny nose, sore throat and cough on Jan 11 but did not see a doctor, the government said on Sunday (Jan 16). She tested preliminary positive for delta after submitting a saliva sample on Jan 15.

Compulsory tests were conducted at the building where she resides in Aberdeen district and notices given for six other places she has visited, including a hotel and a hotpot restaurant.

The source of her infection is not known, raising the prospect that whoever infected her remains in the community. Hong Kong's most recent local Delta case was an airport worker in October and the city remains one of the few places in the world that has not had a community outbreak of the variant.

"There may be a Delta strain circulating," Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the government's Centre for Health Protection, said at a press briefing on Sunday.

"So it is not only restricted to the Omicron cases we detected recently. Of course, we are very worried whether there are other sources of infection that have not been detected."

The discovery comes just days after Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to press on with a Covid Zero strategy, putting the city on track to try and stamp out the most deadly and easily transmissible variants at the same time.

While countries worldwide are also grappling with the threat of twin strains, Hong Kong is a notable outlier in its reluctance to live with the virus, has relatively low vaccination rates and a population with no natural immunity to Delta.

The government had already ramped up restrictions to contain an Omicron outbreak that is stressing the healthcare system and pushing supply chains to the brink, and last week extended current measures through the Chinese New Year in early February.

Dining in after 6pm remains prohibited, gyms and bars are shut, and flights from eight countries including the United States andn Britain are halted.

The tough measures against the virus stem from Hong Kong's goal of reopening borders with mainland China, which also maintains a zero tolerance to outbreaks even as it grapples with a rising number of infections.

The strategy, however, has taken a toll on local residents and business communities, who argue the city could lose out to international rivals such as Singapore and London, which have decided to live with the virus and gradually open up.

Hong Kong reported 11 additional Covid-19 patients on Sunday, including eight inbound travelers, one linked with a case from overseas, and two possibly related to imported cases.

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