A Cathay Pacific Airways flight from Hong Kong to Singapore will take off on Thursday with crew members who have volunteered for a new and rapid Covid-19 test that is still being evaluated, in a closely watched move that could speed up the launch of travel bubbles.
Health officials will evaluate the testing technology provided by Hong Kong-based Prenetics as a wider global effort gets under way to prove that 15-minute screenings for the coronavirus are reliable and affordable, with common digital health passes eliminating the need for quarantine on arrival.
“Rapid and accurate testing at a facility at the airport will be critical for global travel to resume. It will be a prerequisite when we talk about travel bubbles,” said Danny Yeung Sheng-wu, co-founder and CEO of Prenetics.
The company is among others in a worldwide scramble to find accurate and easy Covid-19 tests to be rolled out quickly across airports, with travel and tourism decimated by the pandemic. Airlines have called for mandatory pre-departure tests on international flights to help weed out the threat of imported infections.
For Hong Kong, officials have taken on a greater urgency to form travel bubbles and the city has identified 11 countries as viable candidates, including Singapore and Japan.
The government will start evaluating the performance of the Prenetics test soon, a process expected to take about a week, according to a person familiar with the trial process.
Starting with Cathay Pacific flight 693 from Hong Kong to Singapore, the airline sought two pilots and cabin crew members on the service to volunteer for the test, while it studied the process of how to use and handle a corresponding digital health pass for more widespread use.
“Our goal is to test and refine a system that would best support the progressive and safe reopening of travel, through the adoption of a trusted and harmonised global framework,” Lavinia Lau, director commercial of Cathay Pacific, said in a statement.
Yeung said a rapid-PCR test would be conducted on the Cathay staff, which would produce a result in 30 minutes – but such tests overall were less scalable and only a limited number could be performed.
Prenetics is developing its own test, called RT-LAMP, which aims to offer reliable, affordable, scalable and accurate screening equivalent to the rapid-PCR version. The performance of the newer method was described as “exciting”, and is said to produce no false positives while being in the mid-90 per cent tier for sensitivity.
Yeung said the Hong Kong government had been proactively looking at rapid testing to ensure the battered travel industry could start extensive commercial flights again.
The Food and Health Bureau has been contacted for comment.
United Airlines would also conduct similar tests, as it sought volunteers on its London Heathrow-New York Newark flight. For Cathay and United, those tested would upload results into a digital health pass, called CommonPass, designed to store and share health information in a safe manner while protecting privacy.
Prenetics and Cathay are in collaboration with Swiss-based non-profit The Commons Project, backed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which produced CommonPass to establish standards for laboratory results and vaccinations to be certified, and enables governments to set and verify their own health criteria for travellers.