Big data needed in fight against virus

The fifth wave of the coronavirus outbreak caused by the virulent omicron variant has quickly swept through Hong Kong. While globalization could be blamed as an unavoidable external factor, Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic system, when juxtaposed with the ones in Macao and on the Chinese mainland, has serious loopholes to be addressed.

As the anti-pandemic system instituted in Macao fully aligns with the one on the mainland, mutual access with Guangdong province has been made possible on a quarantine-free basis since July 2020, and this arrangement was expanded to all other provinces in August the same year. Hong Kong, on the other hand, did not meet the basic conditions for quarantine-free travel with Guangdong province until December 2021, and just before everything was all set, the fifth outbreak came to spoil the plan.

The three Cathay Pacific flight attendants who failed to comply with the home quarantine regulations became the sources of the new citywide spread of the virus and have possibly spawned untraceable transmission chains within the community.

Cathay Pacific’s failure to enforce strict quarantine measures on its employees is an issue that should not be taken lightly. In a bid to rectify the situation, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government has rightly adopted a new rule requiring all crew members to undergo quarantine at designated sites instead of at home. However, there is still a serious loophole in Hong Kong’s anti-pandemic system yet to be plugged — that is the absence of a source and contact tracing system powered by big data.

Hong Kong authorities should quickly address the root of the problem in its anti-pandemic policies by setting up a disease-and-control mechanism that harnesses big data to trace the sources of infection, a system that fully aligns with the one on the mainland

Hong Kong had a golden opportunity to establish its own virus-tracing system back in August 2020, when the central government dispatched a team of 570 medical personnel with the necessary medical equipment to conduct voluntary viral testing for everyone in Hong Kong. Had the HKSAR government seized the opportunity to turn it into mandatory universal testing, it would have established a big database and an effective virus-tracing system that would have made it possible to promptly trace the sources and cut off the infection chains of the fourth outbreak in November 2020, two months after the medical team’s visit.

Unfortunately, the mandatory universal testing proposal was met with opposition from people who questioned its scientific proof and raised concerns about “infringing on personal freedom and privacy”. As a result, only 1.7 million people, or 24 percent of the total population, received voluntary viral testing, whereas the data collected was not kept by the HKSAR government for further anti-pandemic efforts. The golden opportunity was therefore squandered.

Since the occurrence of the fourth outbreak a year ago, the government has relied on compulsory testing for individuals who have been to facilities visited by COVID-19 virus carriers. One year on, although the Hong Kong Health Code system has been officially launched, very little effort has been dedicated to creating the big database. The said Health Code, moreover, is again implemented on a voluntary basis, which inevitably translates into massive blind spots for pandemic prevention and control.

The anti-pandemic success on the mainland contrasts with Hong Kong’s struggle. In December, National Health Commission Director Ma Xiaowei told the Xinhua News Agency that the mainland’s anti-pandemic campaign puts great emphasis on enhancing its capability of early detection of small outbreaks and the sources. The authority makes best use of the 24 hours upon the detection of the first case to contact as large a group of people as possible while tracing and monitoring potential infection chains via its contact-tracing system. It is a race against time characterized by a spontaneous response that is so efficient that before the virus acquires the ability to transmit from the source to the others, its primary and secondary close contacts are spotted. Such a strategy allows for early confinement of possible infections and could control the spread of the virus within its incubation period, or about 21 days.

Both the mainland and Macao have handled local small outbreaks in a swift manner. Hong Kong, on the other hand, took eight days to trace the 200 close contacts of the infected flight attendant who visited the Moon Palace restaurant at Festival Walk at year-end. And while the authorities were busy spotting the potential carriers, four generations of infection of omicron had taken place in Causeway Bay.

The absence of a big database has created hurdles for source-tracing, let alone containing the pandemic.

Macao could resume quarantine-free personnel exchanges with the mainland because it has aligned its anti-pandemic system with that of the mainland from the very beginning of the viral outbreak. Hong Kong, in contrast, inclines to align with the West in its anti-pandemic strategy. Some people were obsessed with resuming quarantine-free travel with Western countries and put a significant amount of effort into launching travel bubbles with Singapore, Japan and other countries. In particular, two attempts to set up a travel bubble with Singapore were thwarted owing to a resurgence of the pandemic.

Nonetheless, it is never too late to mend. In the wake of the omicron outbreak, Hong Kong authorities should quickly address the root of the problem in its anti-pandemic policies by setting up a disease-and-control mechanism that harnesses big data to trace the sources of infection, a system that fully aligns with the one on the mainland.

The author is a senior research fellow of China Everbright Holdings.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.