why the number of cases is rising in Hong Kong

Little affected by Covid-19 so far, Hong Kong is registering record deaths and infection rates with the arrival of Omicron.

In less than three months, with the arrival of the Omicron variant, more than 600,000 people have tested positive in Hong Kong, compared to just 12,000 in the first two years of the pandemic. According to calculations by the University of Hong Kong published Monday, 3.6 million people would have actually been infected, nearly half of the population, a figure that could rise to 4.5 million.

This area, which has followed a “Zero Covid” strategy since the start of the pandemic, currently has one of the highest death rates among developed countries, with particularly high death rates in retirement homes.

Hong Kong has recorded 4,279 deaths from Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic, including at least 4,066 since December 31, 2021, according to the latest report dated March 14. Elderly people living in retirement homes have been responsible for nearly 60% of deaths from the coronavirus since January.

Very low immunity

Unfortunately, this comes as no surprise to microbiologist Siddharth Sridhar. In a tweet, he mentioned a low vaccination rate in the elderly and very low collective immunity in an area so far almost spared by the virus. So far, less than 50% of over-70s have received two doses of the vaccine and only 32% of over-80s.

About 90% of the people who died in the fifth wave had not received two doses of vaccine, the Hong Kong government writes. It “highly recommends that eligible people (especially those under 12 and 60 and older) get vaccinated as soon as possible.”

Death rate by age group and vaccination status of 3,231 Covid-19 deaths in Hong Kong
Death rate by age group and vaccination status of 3,231 Covid-19 deaths in Hong Kong © Hong Kong Government

In the countries applying the “Zero Covid” strategy, “it would have been necessary to have a vaccination policy at the same time to protect the population, because the virus had not circulated, there were no infections”, and thus a weak natural immunity , underlined the epidemiologist Arnaud Fontanet about France Inter on Monday.

“It’s done very well in Australia, New Zealand, where they’ve had an increase in the number of cases, but not serious cases in quantity. Unfortunately in Hong Kong today, because they haven’t vaccinated with effective vaccines, people older than 50, death rates we’ve never seen in Europe,” he explains.

David, a geriatrician with about 60 retirement homes, told AFP that the low number of deaths from Covid-19 in Hong Kong during the first two years contributed to a “low level of vigilance” from the families of the elderly. According to him, many were hesitant to get vaccinated, the fear of side effects was stronger than that of a disease that had almost not existed for two years.

· Less effective vaccines?

For Arnaud Fontanet, this significant increase in the number of cases is also due to “vaccines that don’t work very well”.

According to the Financial times, the spread of the virus is also exacerbated by the fact that of the 31% of older Hong Kongers who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, more than two-thirds have received Sinovac, the vaccine made in China, which offers “negligible protection against Omicron”. The others had the BioNTech vaccine, the most effective currently on the market.

According to a study by the University of Hong Kong last December of about 20 people, those vaccinated with Sinovac did not have enough antibodies to fight against Covid-19. According to preliminary results from the Sinovac group, the efficacy of its vaccine against the Omicron variant with two doses reaches only 35%, while it would be much higher with a booster dose. In comparison, the effectiveness of a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine is estimated to be 70 to 75% on Omicron.

congestion in the hospital

Siddharth Sridhar is also pointing the finger in this catastrophic fifth wave of “overwhelmed health workers”. Hospitals in Hong Kong are indeed overcrowded: corpses pile up, elderly patients desperately await treatment in makeshift treatment rooms, even in the open air. Homes for the elderly, which are insufficiently equipped and suffer from serious staff shortages, are particularly affected.

These houses “are not designed or equipped to quarantine (people) … we are at an impasse,” Cheng Ching-fat, general secretary of the workers’ union in old people’s homes, complains to the AFP. “Forcing the elderly back into nursing homes is like dying.”

Last Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that all nursing home residents would receive at least one dose of the vaccine within two weeks. But for unionist Cheng Ching-fat, it comes “too late” and “they cannot prevent the death of the elderly”.

Salome Vincenton

Salome Vincenton BFMTV journalist