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Reopening of intl travel to have ‘little’ impact on COVID-19 spread: Hong Kong study

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The full reopening of international travel in Hong Kong will have “little marginal impact” on the spread of COVID-19, an academic study said on Tuesday, as the financial hub begins to unwind strict coronavirus measures.

The study, titled “Forward planning, after HK’s fifth wave of Omicron BA.2,” expects a sixth wave to begin in June as measures to control the spread of the disease are relaxed in the months ahead and the city increases vaccination rates.

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As long as arrivals are fully vaccinated and test negative upon boarding a flight to the Chinese ruled territory, they would have a negligible impact, according to experts from the University of Hong Kong, the World Health Organization and the Laboratory of Data Discovery for Health.

The researchers suggested the best strategy for the Hong Kong government going forward was a "controlled transition...sooner rather than later" to living with the disease in society.

Authorities in Hong Kong and China have so far stuck to “dynamic zero COVID” policy seeking to curb outbreaks as soon as they occur by extensive contact tracing, testing and isolation.

However, since February the former British colony has struggled to cope as infections and deaths soared, forcing authorities to shift to mitigation measures.

Leader Carrie Lam said on Monday that Hong Kong would ease some social distancing measures starting in April, including lifting a flight ban for nine countries, after a backlash over the city’s strict measures at a time when the rest of the world was shifting to living with the virus.

Since the pandemic began in 2020, Hong Kong has recorded more than 1 million infections and more than 6,000 deaths - most of them in the past month. More than half of Hong Kong’s population has already been infected, researchers said.

The study said a transition towards allowing the disease to be endemic would expose the 40 percent or so of the population which is not yet infected in a controlled manner, which could develop “hybrid immunity” through a combination of natural infection and vaccinations.

At least 90 percent of those aged over 70 would need to have at least two vaccination doses, up from around 70 percent now, it said.

On the assumption that social distancing measures are fully relaxed by June 1, a sixth wave of the disease would emerge and last for two months.

By June 30 the cumulative number of infections would be about 6.7 million, with the cumulative number of deaths up to 10,882.

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