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Business group warns Hong Kong travel curbs a ‘nightmare’

Hong Kong’s stringent pandemic travel restrictions, including frequent flight bans, are a “nightmare” for businesses despite a recent easing of the rules, the European Chamber of Commerce has said.

The business group published a letter to the city’s leader on Wednesday urging her to drop the “circuit breaker” mechanism for flights, which temporarily suspends a route when an aircraft brings in too many infected passengers.

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“Almost daily, our members and other residents have been reporting that they are unable to find their way back to Hong Kong or see their business travel being cancelled,” Eurocham said in the letter to Carrie Lam.

“Many of us are giving up,” the business chamber said, adding that the policy was a “nightmare” for travelers.

Daily coronavirus infections in Hong Kong have fallen back to triple digits as the city moves past an omicron-fueled wave that has killed more than 9,000 people since January.

But the city remains internationally isolated as it hews to a lighter version of China’s zero-COVID strategy.

Hong Kong’s government recently eased some measures, reducing mandatory hotel quarantine for all arrivals to seven days, down from 14.

It has also allowed non-residents to fly into Hong Kong for the first time in two years.

However, any airline that brings in five or more positive cases is banned from flying that route for five days.

Eurocham said the flight suspension mechanism has caused “constant cancellations,” with some European airlines halting flights to Hong Kong entirely due to the policy.

The Asian finance hub has issued more than 80 temporary bans on flight routes this year.

Eurocham also called on the government to lift on-arrival quarantine, noting that locals who test positive are allowed to self-isolate at home but those arriving from overseas cannot.

Last week, the Australian Chamber of Commerce recommended that Hong Kong follow the lead of Singapore or Japan by lowering quarantine requirements for business travelers.

The group also said the circuit breaker mechanism “unfairly punishes” passengers, businesses and airlines.

“The critical ongoing impact of the circuit breaker mechanism is to cause significant uncertainty for potential travelers, businesses and airlines, for no apparent public health benefit,” Austcham wrote in a letter to Lam.

Restrictions need to be eased urgently in order for Hong Kong to “remain relevant to international business and retain talent needed to support its position as an international financial center,” the group added.

Lam said last week that the city had no plans to further relax border controls as they were needed to reduce importation of infections.

Despite reopening its borders to non-residents starting May 1, Hong Kong has recorded only a trickle of international visitors.

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BioNTech, Pfizer to start testing universal vaccine for COVID-19

Germany’s BioNTech, Pfizer’s partner in COVID-19 vaccines, said the two companies would start tests on humans of next-generation shots that protect against a wide variety of coronaviruses in the second half of the year.

Their experimental work on shots that go beyond the current approach include T-cell-enhancing shots, designed to primarily protect against severe disease if the virus becomes more dangerous, and pan-coronavirus shots that protect against the broader family of viruses and its mutations.

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In presentation slides posted on BioNTech’s website for its investor day, the German biotech firm said its aim was to “provide durable variant protection.”

The two partners, makers of the Western world’s most widely used COVID-19 shot, are currently discussing with regulators enhanced versions of their established shot to better protect against the Omicron variant and its sub lineages.

The virus’ persistent mutation into new variants that more easily evade vaccine protection, as well as waning human immune memory, have added urgency to the search by companies, governments and health bodies for more reliable tools of protection.

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As part of a push to further boost its infectious disease business, BioNTech said it was independently working on precision antibiotics that kill superbugs that have grown resistant to currently available anti-infectives.

BioNTech, which did not say when trials could begin, is leaning on the technology of PhagoMed, which it acquired in October last year.

The Vienna-based antibiotics developer has done work on enzymes, made by bacteria-killing viruses, that break through the bacterial cell wall.

Drug-resistant infections are on the rise, driven by antibiotic overuse and leaks into the environment in antibiotics production.

Public health researchers put the combined number of people dying per year from antibiotic-resistant infections in the United States and the European Union at close to 70,000.

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China’s Xi warns against ‘herd immunity,’ says COVID-Zero policy works best

President Xi Jinping declared COVID-Zero the most “economic and effective policy for China,” during a symbolic visit to Wuhan in which he cast the strategy as proof of the superiority of the country’s political system.

Xi said during a trip Tuesday to the central Chinese city where the virus first emerged in late 2019 that relaxing COVID-19 controls would risk too many lives in the world’s most populous country. China would rather endure some temporary impact on economic development than let the virus hurt people’s safety and health, he said, in remarks reported Wednesday by state media.

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“Our country has a large population, such strategies as ‘herd immunity’ and ‘lying flat’ would lead to consequences that are unimaginable,” Xi said, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

The benchmark CSI 300 equities gauge extended losses, ending Wednesday’s session down 1.5 percent, its biggest decline in more than a month. The offshore yuan, which initially declined as much as 0.2 percent on Xi’s comments, pared losses to 6.7032 per dollar as of 4:45 p.m. local time.

The comments represent the clearest sign yet that Xi was willing to expend the political power he’s amassed over the past decade defending a policy that has required locking down large swaths of the country’s most economically important cities for weeks on end. The president characterized Covid Zero as connected to the Communist Party’s “nature and purposes.”

“We have the leadership of CCP, we have the communities as the foundation at grassroots level, we have the capability and strength to implement dynamic-clearance policy until reaching the final victory,” Xi said, using China’s preferred term for the approach.

Growth Target

The comments come in the run up to a pivotal party congress later this year, in which Xi is expected to secure a precedent-breaking third term in power. By increasingly tying COVID-Zero to his own prestige as a leader, Xi is making it riskier for critics of the policy to speak up and also raising the political stakes for himself.

China’s Covid outbreaks and an ongoing property market slump have put the government’s economic growth target of around 5.5 percent out of reach. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg predict growth of just 4.1 percent for this year.

“Xi Jinping’s comments in Wuhan suggest that China’s top leadership sees COVID as a legitimate reason to miss the economic growth objectives and that China’s overall COVID stance is unlikely to change any time soon,” said Louis Kuijs, Asia Pacific chief economist at S&P Global Ratings. “In turn, that means that new outbreaks will continue to pose serious risks to the economy and that economic sentiment will continue to be affected.”

In Wuhan, Xi said China “needs to promote the stable and healthy development of the economy as much as possible at the same time as carrying out the work of pandemic prevention.” Xi also said the country needed to be more self-reliant on developing cutting edge technologies, especially in chip industry and high-end manufacturing, saying the country must “firmly hold the lifeline of science and technology in its own hands.”

Testing Protocol

Xi’s remarks come after the country managed to quell its most serious outbreaks since the Wuhan crisis: both Shanghai and Beijing reported zero local cases on Monday, for the first time since February 19, with the financial hub in particular emerging from a bruising two-month lockdown.

The omicron outbreak has tested its playbook, but China appears to have emerged from that with a new protocol for maintaining COVID-Zero indefinitely. While an easing of travel quarantine buoyed markets on Tuesday as a sign of reopening, officials in the same document codified a standardized approach to mass testing and lockdown that local officials should follow.

China’s 1.4 billion people live in a new normal of constant testing and tracking. In the capital of Beijing, residents are required to show a green code on a mobile app that tracks their health status, and take a COVID-19 test every three days to enter any public venue, including restaurants, shops, and mass transportation. Even kids over age three must be tested to play in the park.

Xi’s comments were likely to dash hopes that China was cautiously embarking on an exit plan.

“We would rather temporarily affect a little economic development, than to risk harming people’s life safety and physical health, especially the elderly and children,” he said Tuesday.

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US FDA advisers meet to discuss design of future COVID-19 vaccines

Outside advisers to the US Food and Drug Administration are meeting on Tuesday to discuss whether to change the design of COVID-19 vaccines in order to combat future variants of the coronavirus.
The updated shots are likely to be redesigned to fight the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, experts say. The exact composition of the retooled shots and whether they also will include some of the original vaccine alongside new components will be considered at the meeting.

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Pfizer Inc, Moderna Inc and Novavax Inc are scheduled to present data at the meeting. All three companies have been testing versions of their vaccines updated to combat the BA.1 Omicron variant that was circulating and led to a massive surge in infections last winter.
Both Moderna and Pfizer with partner BioNTech have said that their respective redesigned vaccines generate a better immune response against BA.1 than their current shots that were designed for the original virus that emerged from China.

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They have said that their new vaccines also appear to work against the more recently circulating BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, even though that protection is not as strong as against BA.1.
Experts also want to know if the new shots will increase protection against severe disease and death for younger, healthier people or merely offer a few months additional safeguard against mild infection.
Scientists who have questioned the value of booster shots for young and healthy people have said a broad campaign is not needed with an updated shot either.
Others experts have championed any additional protection new vaccines may offer.

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