Nucleic acid tests can help prevent diseases, not just detect the coronavirus

The nucleic acid test (NAT) is a well-known method for detecting the coronavirus. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government has processed over 10 million NATs during this pandemic to prevent the spread of the virus, raising the public awareness of NATs. However, few people know that NATs can also be used to detect other diseases at an early stage and play a key part in disease prevention. The SAR government should therefore lend financial and policy support to the development of NATs.

NATs can help identify hereditary diseases and allow early prevention. For example, there is a common misconception that deafness and dumbness are inevitable and irreversible conditions, but with the advancement of medical technology, NATs can target the genes responsible and prevent children from becoming deaf-mute. According to Hybribio, a biotech company, if congenital hearing loss is detected in infants, an ear simulator implant can be put in place in the first three to six months to enable babies to hear. That way, the children can at least be exposed to sounds and learn to speak, even if they may eventually lose their hearing in the future.

In the case of non-congenital deafness, if a NAT result shows that the use of certain drugs is the cause because the child carries some specific genes, parents can ensure that he or she stays away from those drugs; if a NAT result confirms that strenuous exercise is the culprit of deafness because the child has certain genes, he or she can be advised against vigorous sports. After a long period of large-scale testing in a region on the Chinese mainland, Hybribio managed to reduce the number of classes in a local deaf school from 10 to one, proving the significant benefits of genetic testing for public health and well-being.

NATs can detect numerous genetic diseases. For example, existing tests have identified the gene for thalassaemia in embryos, which, given the high death rate among newborns with thalassemia, may offer parents the option of abortion. There are many possibilities for NATs in disease detection which are yet to be explored by researchers, and since different countries or ethnic groups differ in their genetic profiles, fine-tuning the technology for accurate detection is a major challenge. It is clear that NATs can potentially have a wide range of applications and help prevent more diseases. It is therefore worthy of the government’s support.

The NAT has become a familiar concept through this pandemic, and the public awareness of the technology can act as a catalyst for further applications in different areas to protect human health. In a report published in July, Our Hong Kong Foundation concluded that genetic testing and diagnostics is one of the key development areas for biotechnology in the future. Hong Kong and Shenzhen should work together to create a conducive environment for specialist companies. The foundation believes that companies in the Lok Ma Chau Loop can collaborate on research and development, and that Hong Kong and Shenzhen can each focus on different markets. The central government should consider lifting market entry restrictions to allow companies in the Loop with the relevant expertise to move onto the mainland, introducing the technology to the mainland market and potentially to markets around the world.

As the central government rolls out more policies to support the development of the Loop, Hong Kong should seize the opportunity to collaborate with Shenzhen. The Foundation recommends that cross-boundary biotechnology projects should capitalize on Hong Kong’s experience in international management, promoting Hong Kong’s management style in the mainland, which is in line with international standards. To facilitate this, Shenzhen should be more willing to recognize the qualifications and expertise of Hong Kong’s medical and biotechnology researchers in order to encourage the participation of Hong Kong specialists in relevant projects.

Amy Liu Mei-heung is managing editor of Our Hong Kong Foundation.