The offer was presented as a service to Hong Kong, a city struggling with a wave of coronavirus infections: a team of 60 medical officials from mainland China who would help expand testing across the city.
But it is viewed with skepticism by some residents, who are concerned about the growing reach of the Chinese Communist Party and the potential implications of the test project for their privacy.
Hong Kong could use the aid. The biggest wave of coronavirus infections affecting the semi-autonomous city has overwhelmed its isolation wards and testing facilities in recent weeks.
In mid-July, laboratories worked around the clock, processing 10,000 tests a day, a rate that is unsustainable, according to Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's top executive. The government has had to restrict access to testing in recent days, saying it would only award tests to people with symptoms, or who had been in close contact with confirmed cases.
The ability to offer tests to anyone who needs or wants it is a challenge for many cities and countries. This is where China comes in.
"If you want a quantum leap in the number of tests performed per day, we definitely need some help from other countries, or the mainland government," said Leo Poon, Head of the Department of Laboratory Science for Public Health at the University of Hong Kong.
When it comes to performing extensive tests, China is in a league of its own. The Chinese government takes pride in being able to march the resources needed for mass testing, citing it as an advantage of the Communist Party's system of centralized control.
When officials in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus appeared, were confronted with a new outbreak in May, they tested 11 million people in about two weeks. In Beijing, the government mobilized close to 100,000 community workers in June to test about 2.3 million people in just over a week, as it tried to stamp out a new outbreak.
In June, Guo Yanhong, a senior official with China's National Health Commission, said China had tripled its nationwide testing capacity to 3.8 million tests a day from three months earlier, according to a government statement. Based on this rate, which tested 7.5 million, the entire population of Hong Kong should "be no problem," the local pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po reported.
Beijing sent seven medical experts to Hong Kong on Sunday to help with testing, Chinese state media reported. Yu Dewen, a health professional from the southern province of Guangdong who is in charge of the team, said that even with the help of third-party laboratories, Hong Kong could only process 20,000 to 30,000 tests a day, according to the Southern Metropolis Daily, a state-run Chinese newspaper. He said the team's goal was about 200,000 tests a day.
The seven experts who arrived on Sunday laid the foundation for a larger team of technicians who would cross the border and work with three laboratories to increase testing. The laboratories are Hong Kong subsidiaries of mainland companies: Sunrise Diagnostic Center, established by the Chinese genomics giant BGI; Kingmed Diagnostics; and the Hong Kong Molecular Pathology Diagnostic Center, according to The South China Morning Post.
BGI is one of the largest companies performing coronavirus testing in China. In just three days, it built an "air capsule laboratory" in Beijing capable of running 100,000 tests a day.
The unit, Sunrise Diagnostic Center, could help build similar makeshift test facilities in Hong Kong if necessary, according to The Post. The company will be able to process up to 30,000 tests a day at the end of this week. This capacity can be increased by five times – to 150,000 a day – by collecting five samples in one tube.
However, many health experts in Hong Kong are skeptical of universal testing, and see it as a waste of resources and difficult to achieve in a short time.
Instead, they say that the government must test more people who are considered to be at greater risk of infection, such as nursing home residents and workers in public transport.
Arisina Ma, president of the Public Doctors Association, a large union representing doctors in public hospitals and the Ministry of Health, said doctors were surprised by the government's decision to invite Chinese experts.
Dr. Ma said the process was "very problematic" due to a lack of transparency. She noted that a top health professional who heads the infectious diseases department at the city's health bureau had not been able to provide any information about what the Chinese team was doing in the city.
"It felt like a higher-level political decision," said Dr. Ma.
Hong Kong's medical facilities have the capacity to increase testing, but have not been told by the government to do so, said Dr. Ma. She wondered if Beijing's help was even needed.
"We are not so devastated that we need to ask for help," she said. "Even when hospitals in America and the UK are destroyed, they are just trying to mobilize their own staff. In Hong Kong, we have sufficient and sufficient personnel to do so.
Some establishment-supported critics have claimed that it is doctors who have made it difficult or prohibitively expensive for people to get tested.
Regina Ip, an associate attorney in Beijing, Hong Kong, said the city had failed to perform nearly enough testing because of what she described as the medical profession's grip on the process. "I think it's protectionism – 'you have to do it our way,'" she said of the Hong Kong health service.
The cost of taking a coronavirus test also exacerbates the problem. In most private hospitals, tests can only be performed after a consultation with a doctor.This means that a test can cost around $ 200 – a price tag that gives up for families. in their lives.
They found it particularly annoying in the wake of the sweeping national security law that Beijing introduced on June 30 to acknowledge dissent in Hong Kong. Police officers investigating alleged subversive crimes under the new law have collected DNA samples from people arrested during protests.
The Hong Kong government has not said who it plans to test, but it has promised that DNA samples will not be transposed. ortert to the mainland.
But the local government's lack of transparency around the move to invite Chinese experts and the involvement of Chinese test companies has raised alarm bells, activists say. The Hong Kong government's complex fears said they were looking at potential criminality by "spreading rumors" that the test program could lead to the harvesting of DNA samples.
The chairman of the Sunrise Diagnostic Center, Hu Dingxu, has said that samples would not be sent to the mainland, according to Pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po.
Danny Yeung, CEO and co-founder of Prenetics, a company that has worked with the Hong Kong government to process coronavirus samples, said that his company did not have access to the private information of anyone who was tested because they were only identified by a barcode. Samples will be sent to a biohazard waste company for disposal after seven days, he said in an interview on Wednesday.
Activists' concerns stem from the fact that the cells collected in the nasal and throat swabs used for coronavirus testing can also be used to generate DNA profiles.
Many people worry that their data could survive the pandemic, especially if the samples are stored in a DNA database, similar to the type set up by the Chinese government to collect DNA samples from Uighurs in the western region of Xinjiang and from men and boys all over China.
"People in Hong Kong fear that they will be subjected to similar methods of control as in Xinjiang," said Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch who has studied biometric surveillance in China.
"A big part of this is the mass collection of biometrics," she said.
Keith Bradsher contributed reporting and Liu Yi contributed research.