UK enters third wave, Vietnam detects new COVID-19 variant

Olamide Francis with agency report

Vietnam’s health ministry has detected a suspected new coronavirus variant which it said appears to be a hybrid of two highly transmissible strains, Reuters reports.

“A new coronavirus variant with characteristics from the existing Indian and UK variants had been detected in Vietnam for the first time,” Vietnam’s Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long told a national news conference Saturday.

The Southeast Asian country was held up as a leading example in containing the virus thanks to an aggressive strategy of early screening of passengers at airports and a strict quarantine and monitoring program.

But since late April, Vietnam has reported a sharp increase in Covid-19 cases. Almost half its 6,396 confirmed infections were reported in the past month alone, according to Johns Hopkins University data.

It is not clear if the suspected new variant is behind the sudden rise in infections. If it is, it could suggest it is more transmissible.

“The fourth wave of Covid-19 in Vietnam included infections in industrial zones, multiple sources of infections and the presence of various coronavirus variants. It will spread very fast and it will be very difficult to control,” the health minister said.

The World Health Organization said on Saturday its Virus Evolution Working Group was working with officials in Vietnam to confirm the possible new coronavirus variant after four people were confirmed to be infected with a suspected new strain.

Health workers collect swab samples to test for Covid-19 at the Thanh Xuan district medical centre in Hanoi on May 15.

“We have not yet made an assessment of the virus variant reported in Vietnam. We expect that more variants will continue to be detected as the virus circulates and evolves and as sequencing capacities are enhanced worldwide,” said WHO’s technical lead for Covid-19 Maria Van Kerkhove in a statement.

“From what we understand, the variant they detected is the B.1.617.2 variant possibly with an additional mutation, however we will provide more information as soon as we receive it.”

The B.1.617.2 variant was first detected in India, where officials have said it and other variants have driven the country’s spike in Covid-19 cases.

British health officials earlier this month upgraded B.1.617.2 to a variant of concern due to its rapid spread in the UK.

On Sunday, the government announced social distancing restrictions for Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s largest and most populous urban area, according to Reuters news agency.

The new measures, in place for two weeks from Monday, include the closure of non-essential services, such as shops and restaurants, and the suspension of religious activities.

Public gatherings of more than 10 people are also banned, and the city is considering halving that number, according to Reuters.

Last week, Vietnam widened lockdown measures in its industrialised north after the country saw its biggest jump in Covid-19 cases, driven by clusters in factory zones in Bac Ninh and Bac Giang provinces, Reuters reports.

The outbreak has spread to more than 30 of Vietnam’s 63 cities and provinces, including the capital Hanoi, which has shut restaurants and banned public gatherings.

In a country of more than 96 million people, fewer than 30,000 – 0.03 per cent – have been vaccinated, according to JHU data.

The health ministry is working to secure 10 million vaccine doses under the COVAX cost-sharing scheme, as well as a further 20 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine and 40 million of Russia’s Sputnik V, according to Reuters.

Vietnam has so far received 2.9 million doses and aims to secure 150 million this year, Reuters reported.

Ho Chi Minh City has seen a rise in cases related to a religious mission that has recorded at least 125 positive tests, accounting for most of the city’s infections, Reuters reported, citing a government statement.

In a similar development, there are signs the UK is in the early stages of a third wave of coronavirus infections, a scientist advising the government has said, BBC reports.

Prof Ravi Gupta, from the University of Cambridge, said although new cases were “relatively low” the Indian variant had fuelled “exponential growth”.

He said ending Covid restrictions in England on 21 June should be postponed.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the government could not rule out a delay to the planned lockdown easing.

But business leaders have warned of the harmful impact of any change to the proposed dates.

On Monday, the UK reported more than 3,000 new Covid-19 infections for a sixth day in a row, BBC reports.

Prior to this, the UK had not surpassed that number since 12 April.

No deaths within 28 days of a positive test were reported in England, Wales or Northern Ireland – but one death was reported in Scotland.

Prof Gupta told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the UK was already in a third wave of infections and at least three quarters of cases were the variant identified in India.

He said, “of course the numbers of cases are relatively low at the moment – all waves start with low numbers of cases that grumble in the background and then become explosive, so the key here is that what we are seeing here is the signs of an early wave.”

However, he said the number of people who had been vaccinated in the UK meant this wave would probably take longer to emerge than previous ones.

“There may be a false sense of security for some time, and that’s our concern.”

The final stage of the government’s roadmap for lifting lockdown would remove all limits on how many people you can meet – either indoors or outdoors.

But Prof Gupta – a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) – said ending restrictions in June should be delayed “by a few weeks whilst we gather more intelligence”.

Meanwhile, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, council chairman of the British Medical Association, said the UK was at a “pivotal moment” in its battle against the virus, and called on ministers to “act with maximum caution when considering whether to go ahead with lifting restrictions” on 21 June, BBC reports.

“A premature ending of all legal restrictions which then resulted in a surge of infections would undermine our health service’s efforts to tackle the biggest level of backlog of care it has ever faced,” he said.

“It would also add further demands on staff who are exhausted, both mentally and physically.”

In March, almost five million patients were waiting for surgery – the highest number since modern records began.

More than 436,000 were waiting more than a year, NHS England figures show –compared with just 1,600 before the Covid-19 crisis.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, said it would be “devastating” for the sector if they were not able to fully reopen in June, with many hospitality venues currently operating at 60% capacity because of social distancing rules.

She said some businesses were “haemorrhaging cash” and a delay would “push them closer to the cliff edge of business failure”.

Greg Parmley, chief executive of live music trade association Live, said the whole sector – from festivals to small venues – was “completely geared up” for a return from 21 June after being closed for more than a year.

He said the government’s series of trial events had shown “music events can be held safely, with almost no Covid-19 impact, so there is no reason to keep us closed any longer”.

Eustice told the BBC the government had to take things “one step at a time”.

“We can’t rule anything out. We know this has been a difficult pandemic, a dynamic situation. We have to make that judgment a couple of weeks before.

“It will only be by then that we will see the impact of the latest easement we made on 17 May.”

The timetable for relaxing Covid-19 measures varies across the UK. The Scottish government hopes to lift more restrictions on June 7, while in Wales there is due to be a review on June 3. In Northern Ireland some measures were relaxed on May 24 – the next review is due on June 10.

 A final decision on whether restrictions will be lifted in England will be reached on June 14.

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