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LCQ6: Measures to prevent another outbreak of COVID-19 epidemic
     Following is a question by the Dr Hon Dennis Lam and a reply by the Secretary for Health, Professor Lo Chung-mau, in the Legislative Council today (May 10):
     The World Health Organization classified the Omicron XBB.1.16 variant of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (the variant) as a "variant under monitoring" on March 22 this year, and upgraded the classification of the variant to a "variant of interest" (VOI) on April 17. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's classifications and definitions for novel coronaviruses, "VOI has been associated with significant genetic changes and may require appropriate public health actions". It has been reported that with the variant being highly transmissible, infected cases have been reported in 33 countries or regions since it was first detected on January 9 this year, and it has also spread to Hong Kong and the surrounding regions. In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:
(1) under the backdrop of the relaxation of the anti-epidemic measures in Hong Kong and the resumption of normal travel between Hong Kong and the Mainland, what measures the Government will take to strictly monitor the risk of the spread of the variant; and
(2) whether the authorities have formulated a sound anti-epidemic mechanism to cope with the long-term effects brought by novel coronaviruses after they have become endemic, and prevent mutant viruses from causing another outbreak of infection, so as to avoid the resurgence of the epidemic?
     The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government has all along been responding to the COVID-19 epidemic based on the principles of science-based and targeted anti-epidemic measures, as well as the proper management of risks and citizen-focused facilitation; formulating anti-epidemic strategies which achieve the greatest effects with the lowest costs, taking into account the latest epidemic developments and scientific analysis. Meanwhile, Hong Kong has also received the unwavering support from our country. For instance, at the request of the HKSAR Government, the Central People's Government and the Guangdong Provincial Government provided supplies and arranged the medical support team to come to Hong Kong during the most severe period of the fifth wave of the epidemic, providing critical assistance to Hong Kong. The HKSAR Government would like to thank our country, members of the public and all sectors of the community for their support of and co-operation on various anti-epidemic measures in the past three years.
     In response to the epidemic development, the HKSAR Government has also been summarising experiences periodically, so as to continuously improve the epidemic responses on all fronts. With the ever evolvement of the virus and the concerted effort of all, coupled with the significant enhancement of prevention and treatment capacities of Hong Kong's healthcare system and the handling capacity of the society as a whole, the risk posed by COVID-19 to local public health has apparently reduced. 
     With the cancellation of issuing isolation orders from January 30, 2023, and the lifting of the mandatory mask-wearing requirements from March 1, all social distancing measures applicable to the general public were lifted and the society has fully resumed normalcy, without any significant rebound so far. Currently, we have established a system of the "new normal" and have COVID-19 managed as a type of upper respiratory tract infections, while the focus of anti-epidemic measures is the protection of the high-risk groups.
     In consultation with the Department of Health and the Hospital Authority (HA), my consolidated reply to the questions raised by the Dr Hon Dennis Lam is as follows:
     As of May 3 this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) is monitoring variants including XBB.1.5, BA.2.75, BQ.1, CH.1.1, XBB, XBB.1.9.1, XBB.1.9.2, XBB.1.16 and XBF. According to the WHO's initial risk assessment on XBB.1.16 dated April 17, 2023, the global risk assessment for XBB.1.16 is low as compared to XBB.1.5 and the other currently circulating variants. The available evidence does not suggest that XBB.1.16 variant has additional public health risks, when compared with XBB.1.5 and other currently circulating Omicron descendant lineages. There is no evidence showing such a situation.
     Regarding the local situation, according to the genetic characterisation on samples of specimens positive for SARS-CoV-2 virus and relevant samples of severe and fatal cases conducted by the Public Health Laboratory Services Branch, the proportion of XBB and its descendant lineages detected during the period from April 27 to May 3, 2023, was 49.6 per cent. In other words, XBB has taken up almost half of the local infected cases, with XBB.1.16 accounting for only 1.5 per cent of the total samples.
     The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) will continue to monitor the local situation of COVID-19 by monitoring the number of severe and fatal cases, and various surveillance data, such as continuously conducting sewage surveillance for all variants under the WHO's list of variants under monitoring, with a view to evaluating the public health risks posed by COVID-19 to the community. Relevant findings are also disseminated to the public in the weekly publication "COVID-19 & Flu Express" and will be reported to the WHO regularly. The CHP will also continue to disseminate relevant information to the public in a timely manner, to remind and encourage members of the public to take appropriate personal health protection measures.
     The vaccines provided in Hong Kong, including Comirnaty and Sinovac vaccines, are both highly effective in preventing severe cases and deaths from COVID-19. The Government has been taking a multi-pronged approach to increase the vaccination rate. The effective vaccination rate equivalent to having received at least three doses has reached 95 per cent, building a very effective protection barrier for the society to resume normalcy in full. The Government will continue to encourage members of the public to receive COVID-19 vaccination, particularly high-risk members of the public belonging to the priority groups, namely individuals aged 50 or above, adults with underlying comorbidities, persons with immunocompromising conditions, pregnant women and healthcare workers, who can receive an additional vaccine booster six months after their last dose or COVID-19 infection free of charge in 2023.
     We will also ensure the prevention and treatment capabilities of the healthcare system, so as to cope with the medical needs brought about by the changes in epidemic situation. The HA has been reviewing and updating the anti-epidemic measures of public hospitals in a timely manner in accordance with the Government's overall prevention and control strategy and the latest scientific evidence, while adopting a multi-pronged approach to enhance the capacity in combating the epidemic. This includes formulating effective contingency plans, launching different phases of Bed Mobilisation Plans in view of the epidemic, prescribing COVID-19 oral drugs for suitable patients, etc. The Government has also procured and kept stock of sufficient oral drugs and adjusted, in a timely manner and according to actual needs, the number of courses that private doctors can request each time through the online platform set up by the Government, so as to cope with the changing situation of the COVID-19 epidemic.
     Following the WHO's announcement on May 5 this year that the COVID-19 situation no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, the Government would make reference to this latest advice in assessing the local situation and risks of the mutation of COVID-19 strains, thereby appraising the epidemic prevention and control response level, and adjusting the remaining measures and arrangements in relation to the epidemic accordingly. It should be noticed that the WHO has specifically stated that, although the COVID-19 situation no longer constitutes a public health emergency of international concern, the pandemic is still ongoing, and the number of local infected cases also shows a significant increase recently. The Government will continue to closely monitor the latest situation and risks of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases with an emphasis on the protection of high-risk groups, making every effort to safeguard public health. Apart from the COVID-19, the overall activity of local seasonal influenza also remains active, so we would also like to call on all members of the public to receive COVID-19 vaccination and seasonal influenza vaccination, and to observe strict hygiene for self-protection.
     Thank you, President.
Ends/Wednesday, May 10, 2023
Issued at HKT 17:23
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