Bringing a pandemic to heel

Bringing a
to Heel

How Hong Kong’s response to combat the spread of Covid-19 has provided a model for the world to follow.

During the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak, Hong Kong was one of the worst-hit regions in the world. While it was a painful episode in Hong Kong’s history, the outbreak spurred government action, including investments in health infrastructure and new policies to better safeguard the city against future breakouts.

This year, with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Hong Kong’s systems clicked into place to provide a strong frontline defense. World-class viral research capabilities and the use of cutting-edge innovations have enabled the city to prevent the kind of rapid transmission that has been seen in many other regions.

While many countries battled the breakout with stringent lockdown measures to curtail the spread and reduce death tolls, Hong Kong managed to keep its numbers in check and maintain a semblance of normality that other economies are still struggling to resume.

INFECTIONS BY region in 2020

* Tallies are as at the end of each month; Source: HKSAR website, National Health Commission of the PRC and WHO Coronavirus Disease Situation Reports.
So, how has Hong Kong managed to keep the pandemic under control?

Learning from the past

Since 2003, the HKSAR Government has poured investments into ramping up its public health system.

This includes:
  • Establishing the Centre for Health Protection to prevent and control diseases in Hong Kong in collaboration with local and international partners.
  • Setting up a Research Fund for the Control of Infectious Diseases to enhance research capabilities in infectious diseases.
  • Expanding laboratory diagnostic capacity and improving infection control in hospitals and medical institutions.

This has given Hong Kong an edge in dealing with Covid-19. One early result: scientists and clinicians from the University of Hong Kong quickly provided evidence of human-to-human transmission in January 2020, which subsequently helped inform policy and government responses across the globe.

On January 4, just days after Mainland China reported a cluster of pneumonia cases with unknown causes in Wuhan, the HKSAR Government initiated its “serious response level” alert – weeks before many other countries became painfully aware of the serious threat posed by the new virus.

By January 24, the government began to progressively roll out curbs on inbound and outbound travel, starting with the activation of quarantine centers, suspension of flight and rail services between Hong Kong and Wuhan and eventually, announcing the closure of its borders to all non-residents of Hong Kong from overseas countries and regions by plane on March 23.

hong kong's rapid response

  • Jan 5
    WHO publishes first Disease Outbreak News on Covid-19
  • Jan 12
    China publicly shares the genetic sequence of Covid-19
  • Mar 11
    WHO characterizes Covid-19 as a pandemic
  • Mar 29
    Italy death toll surpasses 10,000
  • Mar 30
    US death toll surpasses 2,000
  • Apr 30
    Covid-19 cases in US surpasses 1,000,000
Hong Kong
  • Jan 4
    HK initiates “serious response level” alert, weeks ahead of most other countries
  • Jan 24
    HK begins progressively restricting in-bound and out-bound travel
  • Jan 24
    HK finds evidence of human-to-human transmission, releases findings
  • Mar 23
    HK announces closure of borders to all non-residents of Hong Kong from overseas countries and regions by plane.
  • May 12
    HK hits new record of 23 consecutive days without any local infections

Superior research capabilities

As soon as the sequenced genome of the virus was made available in January, Hong Kong scientists immediately began working on a diagnostic test to identify those infected.

Professor Leo Poon Lit-man, Head of the Division of Public Health Laboratory Sciences, School of Public Health of the University of Hong Kong (HKU), says: “[Since] 2003, the research team has been working diligently in basic research on emerging infectious diseases and it has accumulated knowledge and experience in multiple crisis situations, including SARS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Swine Flu. These achievements have positioned HKU at the forefront of global public health efforts against epidemics.”


Hong Kong has sent its test-kits to over 70 countries worldwide

Hong Kong has sent its test-kits to over 70 countries worldwide

Scientists were also quick to share their findings and test kits with the global community in the spirit of co-operation and scientific exchange. To date, HKU-developed tests have been sent free-of-charge to over 70 countries to provide them with the ability to conduct tests while ramping up their own diagnostic capabilities. This is in line with the World Health Organization’s guidelines to conduct widespread testing to better identify and isolate patients.

By sharing our first-hand research findings, we aim to help others around the world in the fight against Covid-19.
- Prof. Leo Poon Lit-Man

Digital Defense

From electronic wristbands to a real-time data system, Hong Kong’s sophisticated digital ecosystem has also played a key role in containing the transmission of the virus.

Starting March 19, electronic wristbands were distributed to all arriving passengers (except for those from mainland China and exempted persons) to curb the spread and ensure self-quarantine measures are adhered to. In addition, the HKUMed WHO Collaborating Center for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control developed a real-time nowcasting data system, enabling authorities and the health sector to gauge the impact of the virus, in-the-moment, in order to implement appropriate control measures.

The city has also adopted a pioneering artificial intelligence monitoring program that uses a wearable smart device to remotely monitor and provide surveillance of infected patients. This technology provides predicative analysis and vital statistics to further aid knowledge of the virus.

These state-of-the-art capabilities have been vital in bolstering Hong Kong’s efforts in overcoming the pandemic.


The world's first virus zapper

The Hong Kong International Airport has become the world’s first airport to feature full-body disinfection channels to efficiently destroy viruses and bacteria on people passing through. Other advanced technologies to be deployed in airports, metro stations, schools and other high-traffic areas include a locally developed anti-microbial coating that can inactivate bacteria and viruses, as well as smart deep-cleaning and health screening robots.

A Resolute community

Of course, credit must go to the people of Hong Kong for their resolute action as a united community. Stung by memories of previous viral outbreaks, many readily took it upon themselves to act in the best interests of society by adhering to safe distancing practices and personal hygiene measures such as wearing face masks and frequent hand washing. Meanwhile businesses rapidly implemented measures, taking temperatures and providing hand sanitizers to help curb the spread and encouraging remote working of employees.

Together, these actions proved invaluable in preventing the virus from spiraling out of control.

     History shows that those who plan and act decisively at speed during such crises emerge as winners in their industry.
- Succeeding in Uncertainty: Responding to Covid-19
PwC China, 2020

While there is still some way to go before the world can declare that the coronavirus is under control, the pandemic has shone a light on Hong Kong’s science-based public health response, quality healthcare facilities and multi-pronged action plan. With existing protocols in place, and new measures introduced, Hong Kong has successfully limited the spread of Covid-19 across the city. These insights, together with Hong Kong’s contributions of information and resources to the global community, provide a ray of hope for communities around the world engaged in the same fight. One thing is also clear: Hong Kong stands ready to share its knowledge and experience with any economies that need it.

This page was paid for by Brand Hong Kong. The editorial staff of CNBC had no role in the creation of this page.