Hong Kong-based genetics testing company Prenetics is in talks with government officials and airlines, including Cathay Pacific, to help make travel safer and rev up economic activity.

The firm, which is testing English Premier League footballers for Covid-19, is turning to the airline industry to help figure out how to prevent second waves of infection stemming from imported cases of the novel coronavirus.

“Testing, testing, testing will be critical for travel to resume,” Danny Yeung, 41, co-founder and chief executive of Prenetics, said during an interview from his corner office overlooking Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. “It’s scary, no one wants to fly,” he said. The company is the largest private laboratory in Hong Kong, in terms of testing capacity, with a maximum of 5,580 tests on a daily basis. It has more than 150 employees.

Only a handful of international routes are open globally, with passengers forced to spend weeks in quarantine at the end of most journeys. The collapse in air traffic has thrown the airline industry into crisis, pushing Virgin Australia into administration and triggering a US$13 billion emergency rights issue by Singapore Airlines.

Danny Yeung, Prenetics’ CEO at the start-up’s Covid-19 testing laboratory. Photo: Alison Tudor-Ackroyd

Weaving together shared protocols could allow the free movement of people within “travel bubbles”. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania lifted travel restrictions between the Baltic states on May 15, while Australia and New Zealand are working towards cross-border flights. For Hong Kong, a travel bubble would do away with the 14-day quarantine on arrival in the city for travellers from within its limits.

South Korea and China opened one such bubble on May 1 for business travellers between Korea and 10 Chinese regions on fast-track entry, provided they test negative for Covid-19 before departure and after arrival. Meanwhile, Macau and its neighbouring mainland Chinese city of Zhuhai have recognised each other’s health code system for individuals crossing their border since May 10.

“Once the initial travel bubbles are no issue … they may extend them,” Yeung said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have discussed allowing travel between the two countries. Photo: EPA-EFE

Domestic travel is steadily rebounding, followed by short-haul international travel, and then long-haul flights, said analysts.

Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines are particularly vulnerable to the slowdown, given their near-total reliance on international flights, said researchers at investment bank Goldman Sachs. In a report dated May 21, it forecast next year’s traffic at 5 per cent below 2019’s level for Cathay Pacific, and 2 per cent below 2019 for Singapore Airlines. “Cathay is in one of the most difficult positions in our Asian airlines’ coverage given the Covid-19 outbreak, due to its exposure to international traffic, which we expect to recover more slowly than domestic, and where we see larger downside risks,” the Goldman analysts said.

A Cathay Pacific spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for information about the airline’s plans to roll-out testing for Covid-19 among crew and passengers.

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“Restoring air connectivity is vital to restarting the global economy and reconnecting people,” Alexandre de Juniac, director general of industry body International Air Transport Association, said in a statement on May 20 calling on governments to collaborate on restarting the aviation industry.

Tourism has long been a driver of Asian economies. In 2018, tourism receipts accounted for 5.5 per cent of Singapore’s gross domestic product, 5.8 per cent of Malaysia’s GDP, and more than 11 per cent of Vietnam’s and Thailand’s GDP.

“As countries globally look to re-start their economy, travel will be of top priority,” said John Riady, CEO of Lippo Karawaci and director of the Lippo Group, an investment company controlled by the Riady family.

“However, it must be safe to travel and I do believe Covid-19 testing will be the key component so that travelers and flight crews feel safe to do so. It’s really amazing to see Prenetics playing such a major role on an international front to help to get lives back to normal,” added Riady, one of Prenetics’ earliest investors..

The BMJ, a weekly peer-reviewed medical journal, said 78 per cent of Covid-19 patients might be asymptomatic, citing China’s National Health Commission in an April 2 report, underscoring the importance of testing as governments lift lockdowns.

Prenetics leapt to international attention on May 8, when it announced it had struck a deal with the Premier League to test players. As of Sunday, it had detected eight players and staff who were positive for Covid-19, all them asymptomatic and now in self isolation.

“As we begin to open up the economy and the borders, testing will become even more crucial,” said Yeung, an erstwhile venture capitalist and former CEO of Groupon East Asia.

Prenetics, backed by funds affiliated with China’s Alibaba Group Holding, PingAn Insurance Group and Indonesia’s Lippo Group, is working on the logistics of testing airport personnel, as well as providing test kits for passengers. “We’ve been discussing with a few major airlines and we’re close to signing some major agreements … to provide testing for their flight attendants, ground crew and pilots,” he said.

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Hong Kong is studying using an electronic health certificate that could exempt residents from quarantine when they visit Macau and Guangdong, Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, the city’s health minister, said on May 16.

Sophia Chan Siu-chee, Hong Kong’s health minister, says the city is studying using an electronic health certificate that could exempt residents from quarantine when they visit Macau and Guangdong. Photo: Winson Wong

A negative Covid-19 test result would be an important component of this certificate. “If that does become a reality, then I think we will play a role to help individuals with an easy solution to get tested, so that you are able to provide a negative result that allows you to depart Hong Kong safely,” Yeung said.

Cathay scaled its operations back to a skeleton schedule of 3 per cent of services in early April, and then extended the arrangement until June 20. Its recently announced increases would take services up to 5 per cent.

For its part, Prenetics will send deep throat saliva test kits to travellers’ homes, pick up the tests and send the results via email the next business day. The test results will be valid for a specific period that still needs to be agreed upon by governments and airlines.

“The best thing is, of course, to do a test every day, but that’s not practical,” he said. “Once a week could be a good start.” If the results expire while the traveller is still abroad, they will need to be retested before their return flight.

Prenetics is in talks with senior government officials and airline industry executives to figure out the finer points of the logistics to make this happen. “It has to be a private-public collaboration,” Yeung said. “No government, by itself, can solve such a massive problem.”

The Latvia-Lithuania border crossing seen from Skaistkalne, Latvia on May 14 ahead of the border reopening. Photo AFP

There are a handful of precedents for Prenetics to draw upon, as it collaborates with airlines and governments about the practicalities of mass testing. Truck drivers are already providing negative coronavirus test results from privately owned laboratories before crossing the border into Hong Kong from mainland China.

Vienna Airport already offers Covid-19 testing at the airport by a private company for about 190 (US$207). Passengers wait at the airport for the results that are available within three to six hours.

Governments will, of course, bump up against constraints to testing people en masse, such as laboratory time and staff. Public hospitals, private hospitals and private laboratories will all need to be part of the solution.

“Travel is essential, and it will restart one bit at a time,” Yeung said.

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