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COVID-19 Panel: Hong Kong Resists ‘Infodemic,’ Offers Lessons on How to Avoid Winter Virus Wave

Hong Kong may not be badly affected by a winter-driven COVID-19 wave as the city continues to adopt health precautions it learned from the 2003 SARS epidemic, said top virus experts.

“We’ve learned that delay is deadly – that you have to act quickly,” said Sarah Borwein, a Hong Kong-based general practitioner, who ran the Infection Control program for the only expatriate hospital in Beijing during SARS.

COVID-19 Panel

“We’ve learned that clear, consistent, honest public health messaging is really important. We’ve had that here [in Hong Kong] and other parts of Asia,” she said at an FCC forum on Oct. 22.

In Hong Kong, “things we learned in 2003 from SARS have helped us contain COVID-19 with infection control measures,” said Professor Ivan Hung, a clinical professor and assistant dean in the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Medicine. He cited early responses including the wearing of face masks and social distancing.

Those measures may help the city avoid a spike in winter infections as seen in North America and the U.K., as the virus becomes more active and transmissible in cooler temperatures and as people spend more time gathering indoors.

“Hong Kong has been relatively well spared because we’ve been wearing masks and we’ve got good social distancing. We won’t be as badly affected as some of the other European countries,” said Professor John Nicholls, a clinical professor in pathology at the University of Hong Kong.

However, Borwein said the public needs to stay vigilant about following hygiene protocols rather than being lulled into a sense of security from “hygiene theatre” – the constant cleaning of surfaces, which may not have as much of an impact as masks and social distancing. 

What remains to be seen is how the pandemic will progress during the Northern Hemisphere’s winter months, particularly as it coincides with flu season. “We’re already seeing detrimental effects in these countries,” said Professor Nicholls. “My concern is, if you get a double infection, you’re going to see an increase in transmission because of the coughing and sneezing caused by influenza.”

The experts also warned about another challenge in fighting the virus: “infodemics,” a tide of misinformation about the pathogen. 

“Many people don’t get their information from the mainstream media – they get it from social media,” said Borwein. “If you like to read articles about the pandemic being a hoax, then soon that’s all you’re going to see on your feed.”

“Given the role of Google and the lack of fact-checking, the public has a hard time knowing what’s really going on,” said Nicholls. “Actually working out what’s true and not true is quite confusing,” he added, pointing out his concern with media outlets reporting information from studies that haven’t been peer-reviewed.

The panel also discussed what is known – and remains to be discovered – about COVID-19, which has infected 41.3 million people and claimed 1.1 million lives. “From recent research, we know that this virus is very good at suppressing the host’s immune system, allowing the virus to replicate rapidly,” said Professor Hung. “We know quite a lot about the biology,” added Professor Nicholls. “What we really don’t know is how much it’s going to mutate in the future.”

As to when a vaccine the panel was not overly optimistic. “I think it won’t be a magic bullet but it will be a major weapon,” said Professor Hung. “My own suspicion is that it will be an important part of the fight but not a magic bullet,” Borwein said.

Nicholls, meanwhile, raised several potential threats to the success of any future vaccine, including large portions of the global population being resistant to the idea of vaccination, the logistical difficulties of distribution, and the fact that vaccinations result in a less robust immune response, and therefore weaker immunity, among the elderly.

Even without a vaccine, panelists expressed hope for resuming international travel as soon as possible. “I see no reason why Hong Kong cannot have a travel bubble with, for instance, Taiwan,” said Professor Nicholls. “I’m very much for the travel bubble for place like Taiwan, Singapore, Korea, and Japan,” added Professor Hung. “This would be very important for the economy and travel industry, and it would also encourage people to get vaccinated in the future.” 

Even once the COVID-19 pandemic ends, however, the panel expressed concerns about future viral outbreaks. “You have to respect nature,” said Professor Hung. “The next pandemic will most likely be linked to human consumption of meat.”

Nicholls said a pandemic could start “wherever animals are being mass produced for human consumption. It’s not going to be ‘if’ but ‘when.’”

Watch the full discussion:

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