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Published: 23:17, November 30, 2021 | Updated: 23:34, November 30, 2021
HKU research team successfully isolates Omicron variant
By Wang Zhan
Published:23:17, November 30, 2021 Updated:23:34, November 30, 2021 By Wang Zhan

In this Aug 29, 2018 photo, students walk in front of University of Hong Kong's Wei Lun Hall in Hong Kong's Pok Fu Lam area. Top university officials have stressed the unique role universities in the city can play in the Belt and Road Initiative on the sidelines of second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, China. (PHILIP FONG / AFP)

HONG KONG – Hong Kong scientists have succeeded in isolating Omicron variant from clinical specimens which will help in developing vaccines against the new COVID-19 strain, The Hong Kong University said on Tuesday.

In a statement, HKU said its Department of Microbiology researchers were the first known research team in Asia that has succeeded in isolating the Omicron variant.

The isolated variant will enable the development and production of vaccines against Omicron, which has been designated as a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization.

The isolated variant will enable the development and production of vaccines against Omicron, which has been designated as a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization

The research team is now working on expanding the virus for use in assessing its transmissibility, immune evasion capability, and pathogenicity in animal models.  The team is also exploring opportunities for urgent development and production of inactivated whole virus vaccines, the HKU said.

The HKU team succeeded in isolating the variant late Monday, four days after the first two Omicron cases were confirmed in Hong Kong on 25 November, and five days after the variant was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on 24 November.

WHO designated the variant, initially identified as B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, and named it Omicron on Nov 26.

ALSO READ: HKU shares quick COVID-19 testing technology with the world

Cases of the Omicron variant have since been reported from around the world in countries and regions such as Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, France, and Canada, as governments impose urgent travel bans and heightened surveillance.

This combo photo shows cells before infection (left) and 48 hours after they were infected (centre and right) by the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant. (PHOTO / THE HONG KONG UNIVERSITY)

“We recognize the serious threats of the variant and jumped into action immediately,“ Chair of Infectious Diseases Professor Kwok-yung Yuen, who led the research effort, was quoted as saying in the statement.

“Isolating the variant is the first step in the urgent study of the variant.”

Other leaders of the research team include Professor Honglin Chen and Dr. Kelvin To, Head of the Department of Microbiology.

“We are glad that our department is contributing to the global effort to fight the pandemic amid the emergence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant,” To said.

READ MORE: HKU expert: COVID-19 fatality rate at 1.4%

On Nov 28, a 37-year-old man returning from Nigeria via Ethiopia and Thailand became the city’s third patient infected with the Omicron variant after he tested positive during his quarantine at a local hotel.

Virus isolation and incubation were conducted at the biosafety level 3 laboratory (P3 laboratory) of the University of Hong Kong, following standard operating procedures. HKU currently has the only P3 laboratory in Hong Kong.

The microbiology team is now working to further isolate and purify the variant virus for inactivated whole virus vaccine production.

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