A Beijing-led mass coronavirus testing effort kicked off in Hong Kong on Tuesday, with nearly 650,000 people registered to take part amid boycott calls from some of the city’s pro-democracy activists and healthcare workers.
For at least a week, residents will be able to get a free nasal and throat combination test at more than 140 testing centers set up throughout the city.
The Asian financial hub had to tighten its social distancing measures in early July amid spiking case numbers during its third wave of COVID-19 infections, but the outbreak appears to have been brought under control with twelve new cases reported on Tuesday.
But to stave off any new transmission, the government is hoping residents will come forward and volunteer to take the free test this week.
Beijing will be assisting in the testing with a temporary lab and a team of at least 60 specialists, which has led Hong Kong’s pro-democracy union of healthcare workers and some pro-democracy activists, including Joshua Wong, to call for a boycott of mass testing this weekend.
They say it’s not the most efficient way to contain the virus and that DNA samples could be sent to mainland China. The Hong Kong government has denied that claim, saying no personal data will be taken out of the city.
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The issue comes at a sensitive time for some Hong Kongers with what they decry as Beijing’s encroachment on their freedoms.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who herself got tested Tuesday, told reporters the purpose of the program is to identify hidden carriers as soon as possible to stop the spread of the virus.
She denied that 600,000 people who signed up for the mass testing so far, a fraction of the city’s 7.5-million population, had anything to do with the level of trust in Hong Kong’s government.
“But it does have something to do with people, who either don’t understand the details of the program, the procedures, the safeguards we have put in place, that they try to cause worries and fears amongst the people, so they will have less confidence in coming forward,” Lam said.
Mass testing has been successful in bringing outbreaks under control in mainland China, professor Benjamin John Cowling of Hong Kong University’s School of Public Health told NBC News.
Authorities in Wuhan, a city in mainland China where the virus emerged earlier this year, tested all of its 11 million residents in May after a cluster of new cases raised fears of a second wave of infections. According to China’s health officials, there have been no new cases in Wuhan recently, and Xinhua news outlet reported that about 1.4 million of the city’s students went back to school on Tuesday.
“The government in Beijing and Hong Kong have been very enthusiastic about demonstrating this mass testing approach as a good way to resolve and end a community epidemic,” Cowling said.
“If it works in Hong Kong, then maybe it will work in other parts of the world. That will be a success story for the Chinese approach for controlling COVID-19,” he added.
Ed Flanagan contributed.