A new Omicron mutation has made Hong Kong the deadliest place on earth for Covid – and the rogue strain has already been detected in Australia.
Hong Kong has been ravaged by the virus since mid-February when deaths soared from just 224 to 2287 within weeks.
Omicron killed 280 people in Hong Kong on Monday, and there’s been 450,000 cases since February 15. Before Omicron, the city had only 50,000 since the start of the pandemic.
All recent cases have been of a slightly mutated strain of the BA2 form of the disease which tweaks the amino acid profile in one of the Covid virus cell spike proteins.
The mutation, dubbed BA2.2, is almost unique to Hong Kong at this stage, but has also been seen in small numbers in the UK, Singapore and Australia, according to Arkansas State University Professor Raj Rajnarayanan.
A new Omicron mutation has made Hong Kong the deadliest place on earth for Covid – and the rogue strain has already been detected in Australia
Hong Kong has been ravaged by the virus since mid-February when deaths soared from just 224 in total to 2287 within weeks, and hundreds are now dying every day
Debate is now raging among scientists about whether the new mutation is key to Hong Kong’s shocking death rate – or if it is coincidental.
Covid mortality in the city is 29.18 deaths per million, dwarfing Australia’s worst-ever mortality rate in January of 3.4 per million.
Its seven-day average of 193 deaths per day in a city of 7.5 million even surpasses India, with a population of 1.4 billion, currently averaging 180 daily deaths.
And it’s even higher than the UK’s worst-ever pre-vaccination death rates.
All recent cases have been of a slightly mutated strain of the BA2 form of the disease which tweaks the amino acid profile in one of the Covid virus cell spike proteins
Omicron killed 280 people on Monday, with total case numbers hitting 500,000 since the start of the pandemic, up from around 50,000 on February 15
Just 32 per cent of those over 80 are double-jabbed, and only 61 per cent of those over 70
Case numbers are now expected to rise yet further after locals were this week finally able to register positive rapid antigen tests online.
Some epidemiologists believe the tweaked mutation has arisen from virus genetic in-breeding caused by the original limited source of the Omicron outbreak in Hong Kong, in a process called founder effect, rather an evolutionary step forward to adapt and improve.
It’s unclear how the mutation affects vaccine resistance, if at all, but the majority of those dying in Hong Kong are either unvaccinated or not fully-vaccinated.
Some experts have also questioned the effectiveness of China’s home-produced Sinovac against Omicron, with studies casting doubt on even a double jab of it producing enough antibodies to fight the Covid variant.
Hong Kong launched a vaccination blitz in February in a bid to combat the Omicron wave, with a high take-up among younger residents.
But vaccination rates in Hong Kong are especially low among the elderly because of cultural distrust of western medicine, keeping overall numbers low.
Hong Kong launched a vaccination blitz in February in a bid to combat the Omicron wave, with a high take-up among younger residents
But vaccination rates in Hong Kong are especially low among the elderly because of cultural distrust of western medicine
The city worked hard to minimise the threat of Covid throughout the pandemic with strict restrictions, but those have proved insufficient to contain Omicron
Imperial College of London virologist Tom Peacock questioned the impact of the new mutant BA2.2 strain on being behind Hong Kong’s death rate.
‘Don’t think we need a new mutant to explain the tragic situation in Hong Kong?’ he tweeted.
‘Would be surprised if this is anything but a founder effect due to low initial seeding of this specific thing.’
Georgia Tech scientist Tony Burnetti added: ‘There’s nothing virologically interesting at all. It’s all about the local population.
‘They were relying on containment and have abysmal vaccination rates. It finally got out, into a population where two-thirds of the vulnerable elderly are unprotected.’
Just 32 per cent of those over 80 are double-jabbed, and only 61 per cent of those over 70. The vast majority of the city’s deaths have been among those over 70.
The vast majority of the city’s deaths have been among those over 70
Prof Catherine Bennett says Australia must wait to see more data come out of Hong Kong to judge the threat of the latest new mutant Omicron strain
The city worked hard to minimise the threat of Covid throughout the pandemic with strict restrictions and travel bans, but those proved insufficient to contain Omicron.
The younger population have a much higher vaccination percentage, but that is causing its own problems as they are catching the disease asymptomatically and may be spreading it without realising.
‘It means the disease can be spreading silently,’ Deakin University epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett said.
‘Part of the reason that they worked so hard to keep the virus out was because it is a difficult city to manage the virus in. It is high density living.
‘You have families and extended families not just living in apartments and divided apartments but towers. You have a high reliance on public transport.
‘There’s a range of things that are part of that dynamic life in Hong Kong that actually make it really difficult when you have something that spreads as readily as any of the variants of Omicron will do.’
High density living in Hong Kong makes the city more vulnerable to a Covid outbreak
Professor Catherine Bennet (pictured) said Australia is now in a better position to deal with any new variants and limit their impact
She said Australia and the rest of the world must now wait to see more data come out of Hong Kong to judge the threat of the new mutant Omicron strain.
Comparisons of infection rates with the new variant rate in hospital cases versus the wider population will give a better indication of its potential impact, matched also against vaccination details.
‘But without that information, we simply don’t know,’ Prof Bennett added.
‘The important message which has come out of this is the need to be vaccinated. Double-dose vaccination cuts your chances of being seriously ill by 66 per cent.
‘A booster dose of an mRNA vaccine reduces that even further to 88 per cent.’
The inherent danger of a widespread outbreak in a densely populated city like Hong Kong is the creation of further mutant strains as a result of the rapid and easy spread of the disease.
But Prof Bennett added that Australia is now in a better position to deal with any new variants and limit their impact as a result of both its successful vaccination program and also the Omicron outbreak which swept the nation.
‘A lot of young people were infected who are most likely to spread the disease, but prior infection combined with vaccines gives much broader immunity,’ she said.
‘We can be a little less fearful of new variants. It’s much tougher for Covid to mutate effectively now.
‘A new variant has to look different to Omicron and the ancestral strains to defeat our vaccines and it has to be both viable and an effective pathogen.
‘Our vaccines should still give that extra bit of protection against any other new variant that might turn up.’