Hong Kong’s Virus Test Crunch is ‘Ongoing Crisis’, Lab Says

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Two thirds of private demand for coronavirus tests from Hong Kong residents cannot be currently met as the city faces key capacity bottlenecks amid its worst outbreak ever, said its largest private laboratory.

Prenetics Ltd., along with other Hong Kong labs and hospitals, has been overloaded with people seeking virus tests since the new wave emerged 18 days ago, said Chief Executive Officer Danny Yeung in an interview on Wednesday. Demand has now swelled to as many as 20,000 daily just from members of the public as the new outbreak grows to over 700 local infections, he said.

Hong Kong’s Virus Test Crunch is ‘Ongoing Crisis’, Lab Says

Almost all of the city’s testing capacity has been tied up in government use as city officials scramble to trace infections, more than half of which are of unknown origins. Prenetics is currently in the midst of a government-commissioned testing blitz of 200,000 restaurant staff across 16,000 restaurants, said Yeung, and lacks capacity to meet private demand.

“This is an ongoing crisis. Just because you test negative right now doesn’t mean next week you won’t get it,” said Yeung.

Hong Kong’s Virus Test Crunch is ‘Ongoing Crisis’, Lab Says

The Asian financial center has been taken off-guard by a sudden eruption of infections and its medical infrastructure is coming under strain. Isolation beds and wards in public hospitals have reached 80% capacity, while the city’s total testing capacity is smaller than other countries in the region facing resurgences.

Changing Methods

Testing capacity has been a challenge for countries globally even as the ability to mass-test targeted groups has emerged as a key way to halt the virus’s spread. Countries that experienced large outbreaks earlier this year, like mainland China and Singapore, have rapidly built up their testing capacity in the past months. China said last month that it can now process 3.8 million tests a day.

“Speed is of the essence in controlling an epidemic” and large-scale testing is “just not feasible given our current lab capacity,” said Nikkie Lu, a Hong Kong-based analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “So methods might have to be changed. It’s time to consider methods such as batched testing as done in Beijing.”

Batch testing is a technique in which multiple samples are pooled and tested together. If a positive result comes from the batch, authorities can then follow up with assessments on each person in the group. The process can greatly speed up testing when faced with a limited number of kits, while still providing sufficient diagnostic accuracy, according to a paper published in the Lancet medical journal in late April.

Backed by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and Ping An Insurance Group Co., Prenetics was founded as a genetics and DNA testing company but pivoted to virus testing in March after the pandemic began.

The company’s been on “super speed expansion” in recent days, hiring 50 staff in the past week as Hong Kong’s outbreak emerged, said Yeung. It plans to hire 30 to 40 more people to help boost its testing capacity to over 20,000 tests daily, up from 5,580 currently.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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