New Covid alarm sounds

New Covid alarm sounds

Super African strain sparks travel alert

Health workers wearing protective suits administer the Covid-19 swab test for tourists after they arrive a hotel during the first day of the country's reopening campaign on Nov 1, 2021. (Reuters photo)
Health workers wearing protective suits administer the Covid-19 swab test for tourists after they arrive a hotel during the first day of the country's reopening campaign on Nov 1, 2021. (Reuters photo)

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has warned Thais to avoid travelling to countries where a new Covid-19 variant first detected in South Africa has been found.

Speaking after a meeting of the Centre for Covid-9 Situation Administration (CCSA), Gen Prayut said he had been informed of the new variant and instructed the Public Health Ministry and the Department of Disease Control to monitor the situation closely.

"Do not travel to those countries to avoid getting the virus," the prime minister said, adding that a campaign has been rolled out to encourage more people to receive Covid vaccines, bolstered by an online system showing their vaccination certificates.

Renowned virologist Yong Poovorawan, head of the Centre of Excellence in Clinical Virology at Chulalongkorn University's faculty of medicine, said the government should tighten health screening measures to curb entry by travellers from South Africa especially.

However, the public should not panic as mutations are a natural part of the virus's lifecycle, Dr Yong said, adding he is preparing to decode the genetics of the new variant to study its mutations.

Deputy Prime Minister and Energy Minister Supattanapong Punmeechaow said the government is monitoring the new variant.

He said Thailand can request vaccines developed to deal with new variants of the virus under procurement agreements reached earlier with manufacturers.

Deputy Public Health Minister Sathit Pitutecha said the prime minister instructed relevant agencies to keep a close watch on travellers from countries where the new variant has been detected.

"They will not be put under quarantine yet. But officials were told to take strict health-screening measures," Mr Sathit said.

Scientists have also detected cases in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel. They are concerned by the high number of mutations which could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible.

They say it carries a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which plays a key role in the virus's entry into cells in the body. This is also what is targeted by vaccines. Researchers are still trying to determine whether it is more transmissible or more lethal than previous variants.

Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, said the B1.1.529 variant has a "very unusual constellation of mutations", with more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone.

"This variant did surprise us. It is a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of delta," he said.

The World Health Organization has classified it as a variant under monitoring (VUM). A variant is given this label when it has genetic changes that are suspected to affect the virus's characteristics and that may allow it to pose a future risk.

However, it required "enhanced monitoring and repeat assessment, pending new evidence", the WHO added.

The UK has also banned flights from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. They will be added to the country's red list requiring quarantine.

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