Fences are placed to block access to Deep Water Bay beach during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Hong Kong, China, March 18, 2022.
Fences are placed to block access to Deep Water Bay beach during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Hong Kong, China, March 18, 2022. Reuters / TYRONE SIU

The full reopening of international travel in Hong Kong will have "little marginal impact" on the spread of COVID-19, an academic study said on Tuesday, as the financial hub begins to unwind strict coronavirus measures.

The study, titled "Forward planning, after HK's fifth wave of Omicron BA.2", expects a sixth wave to begin in June as measures to control the spread of the disease are relaxed in the months ahead and the city increases vaccination rates.

As long as arrivals are fully vaccinated and test negative upon boarding a flight to the Chinese-ruled territory, they would have a negligible impact, according to experts from the University of Hong Kong, the World Health Organization and the Laboratory of Data Discovery for Health.

The researchers suggested the best strategy for the Hong Kong government going forward was a "controlled transition ... sooner rather than later" to living with the disease in society.

Authorities in Hong Kong and China have stuck to "dynamic zero" policy, seeking to curb outbreaks as soon as they occur by extensive contact tracing, testing and isolation.

However, since February the former British colony has struggled to cope as infections and deaths soared.

Leader Carrie Lam said on Monday that Hong Kong would ease some social-distancing measures in April, including lifting a ban on flights from nine countries, after a backlash over the city's strict measures at a time when the rest of the world was shifting to living with the virus.

Since the pandemic began in 2020, Hong Kong has recorded more than 1 million infections and more than 6,000 deaths - most of them in the past month. More than half of Hong Kong's population has already been infected, researchers said.

Health authorities reported 14,152 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday and 245 deaths.

The study said a transition towards allowing the disease to be endemic would expose the 40% or so of the population who are not yet infected in a controlled manner, which could develop "hybrid immunity" through a combination of natural infection and vaccinations.

At least 90% of those aged over 70 would need to have at least two vaccination doses, up from about 70% now, it said.

On the assumption that social-distancing measures are fully relaxed by June 1, a sixth wave of the disease would emerge and last for two months.

By June 30, the cumulative number of infections would be about 6.7 million, with the cumulative number of deaths up to 10,882.

(Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Neil Fullick)