In Hong Kong, authorities have closed schools and tightened social distancing requirements after a new surge of coronavirus cases struck the territory. According to education secretary Kevin Yeung, the decision was taken due to “the exponential growth of confirmed COVID-19 local cases over the past two days.”
While Hong Kong is grappling with its new surge, Chinese officials have also warned that a new, “unknown pneumonia,” has broken out in Kazakhstan – one that apparently has a higher death rate than COVID-19).
Hong Kong’s latest outbreak of 147 new COVID-19 cases is small compared to outbreaks in the U.S. or Europe. For a territory that has largely kept its infection rate low, however, it represents one of the largest spikes since the pandemic began. (Related: Air travelers hiding coronavirus infections to get into Hong Kong highlight reopening risks.)
In response, Hong Kong’s Education Bureau has ordered the closure of secondary and primary schools as well as kindergartens, starting on Monday. Meanwhile, the Food and Health Bureau announced new social distancing measures for bars and restaurants. The new measures included limiting customers per table to eight and four, respectively.
“As society needs to resume some economic and social activities to a limited extent, it is inevitable that new local cases will appear,” Sophia Chan, secretary for food and health, said.
The new cases were mostly concentrated in a public housing estate, an elderly care home and a local restaurant, though taxi drivers were also thought to have spread the disease. A number of them, however, were also of unknown origin.
According to David Hui, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the rise in cases was the most serious since the pandemic began. In addition, it also shows the risks that asymptomatic carriers and silent transmission pose to the territory.
“There are a lot of silent transmission chains within the community,” he said. “I am most worried because there are a lot of cases with an unknown source of infections.”
Hui also suggested that social distancing measures would have to be tightened further if the territory’s infection rate did not slow down in the next few days.
Complicating matters is that the virus found in Hong Kong’s latest cases was found to have undergone a slight mutation. This mutation was similar to that detected in Europe and Beijing in late May and June, according to Hui. While the severity of the symptoms from this mutation is the same, it does have a much higher transmission potential.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage in Asia, a new, deadlier disease may be rearing its head in the heart of the continent. Chinese officials warned that an unknown form of pneumonia, one with a higher death rate that COVID-19, was spreading through Kazakhstan.
Quoting local media reports, the Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan said that Atyrau and Aktobe counties, as well as Skymkent city, had been seeing an increase in cases of the mysterious disease since June.
According to the embassy, Kazakhstan had seen 1,772 deaths from the disease in the first half of the year, including 628 in June. This number also included a number of Chinese nationals.
“The death rate of this disease is much higher than the novel coronavirus,” a spokesman for the embassy said. “The country’s health departments are conducting comparative research into the pneumonia virus, but have yet to identify the virus.”
Kazakhstani officials, however, have denied the Chinese embassy’s report that the country is experiencing an outbreak. In a statement released Friday, Kazakhstan’s health ministry acknowledged the presence of “viral pneumonias of unspecified etiology” but denied that the outbreak was new or unknown.
“In response to these reports, the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Kazakhstan officially declares that this information does not correspond to reality,” the statement read.
In addition, the statement also added that the “unspecified” classification for the pneumonia simply followed World Health Organization guidelines for the “registration of pneumonia when the coronavirus infection is diagnosed clinically or epidemiologically but is not confirmed by laboratory testing.”
According to the health ministry, health minister Aleksey Tsoy had spoken about the number of pneumonia cases nationwide at a briefing on Thursday. Tsoy stated that these cases included different types of bacterial, fungal and viral pneumonia.
During the briefing, Tsoy said that the country’s registered cases of pneumonia rose by more than 300 percent in June compared to the same month last year.
The Chinese embassy’s report comes as Kazakhastan continues to battle a surge of coronavirus cases. The deadly pandemic has infected 54,747 and killed 264 according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Among those infected is the country’s president and current security council chairman Nursultan Nazarbayev who tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
On July 5, the country implemented a second round of restrictions nationwide to combat the surge. Under these restrictions, international flights are grounded and inter-state travel suspended.
In the face of the ongoing pandemic as well as the new surge of pneumonia cases, Tsoy says that the country has seen an increased demand for medical staff, hospital beds and emergency supplies. Should the situation deteriorate, officials warn that they could tighten restrictions further.