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How a high-tech 'health passport' could get the world moving again

Lee Cobaj
·4 mins read
Cathay Pacific - Cathay Pacific
Cathay Pacific - Cathay Pacific

In a post-COVID aviation first, Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific has announced a partnership with a local biotech firm, Prenetics, to introduce a digital health passport system which could significantly ease the way towards a safer form of air travel. 

 

The high-tech set-up would allow passengers to use a mobile app to present a negative COVID-19 result at check-in and again on arrival at their destination. Prenetics told the South China Morning Post that the pilot project will take-off on the London to Hong Kong route in October, potentially paving the way for quarantine-free travel between the two financial hubs – and at best providing a model which could be implemented globally.     

 

Hong Kong has been at the forefront of virus prevention and control since COVID-19 made its first murky appearance across the border in China in mid-January. To date, the city of 7.4 million people has suffered 4,997 cases and 103 deaths. Its travel industry, however, has been devastated, with 2019's most visited city recording a drop in air traffic of 91 percent and a 99.9 percent fall in visitor numbers since the border closed. 

 

As with the the majority of Asian countries, Hong Kong's borders have been shuttered to all but a few travellers since March, with any passengers making it through forced to spend weeks in quarantine at the end of their journeys. It's a move which has undoubtedly helped to control the spread of the virus across the continent, but with cases in Hong Kong sinking back into single digits over the last few weeks, a plan to restart international travel is finally in the works.   

 

Earlier this month, the Hong Kong government announced that it had approached 11 countries deemed to be low-risk, including Germany, Vietnam,  Thailand and Japan, with a view to forming travel bubbles. Although Hong Kong is currently on the UK's 'green list', Great Britain did not make the cut but yesterday's announcement from Cathay Pacific suggests that may change.    

 

The technology needed certainly appears to be there; the Hong Kong biotech start-up Prenetics was recently appointed by the Hong Kong government to carry out hundreds of thousands of tests as part of a free citywide testing programme, following a recent third wave of coronavirus outbreaks. 

 

The firm, which counts former England and Manchester United captain Rio Ferdinand among its investors, is also responsible for restarting another beleaguered industry – live sports – with its COVID-19 testing programme for English Premier League footballers. Players and staff are currently tested by Prenetics twice a week. 

 

The Hong Kong company are also confident that they will be able to roll out a rapid 30-minute COVID-19 test before the end of the year, which would make it the fastest polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test in the world. At the moment, the most accurate coronavirus antigen tests can take anywhere between six hours to a few days to produce results. The new test would slash this to half an hour, has been approved by the World Health Organisation, and is 99.9 percent accurate both in identifying positive cases and those who test negative.    

 

Used in conjunction with a digital health app, air passengers on both sides of the corridor would be able to arrange a standardised COVID-19 test before departure. Later, the result would be uploaded to their phone and that online information would then act as a kind of digital health passport allowing access to their flight. A second test would then be performed on arrival, with another negative result granting the passenger permission to cross the border and presumably negate the need for quarantine. 

 

The UK and Hong Kong would still need to discuss what would happen to anyone who tested positive at the arrival stage. Currently, anyone testing positive on arrival in Hong Kong is sent to hospital until they produce two negative tests, while anyone who has been in close proximity to a positive case is sent to a government quarantine facility for 14 days. 

 

But while there are still some potential hurdles, the news from Hong Kong appears to offer an extremely promising path to restarting a safe, reliable and straightforward means of air travel in the near future.