Covid-19: Health experts keeping an eye on new strain developments

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Public health experts are closely watching the arrival of a new highly contagious strain of Covid-19 in New Zealand’s managed isolation and quarantine facilities.

Police at the Grand Mecure Hotel in Wellington, which is being used as a managed isolation facility.

Photo: RNZ /Dom Thomas

So far, six cases of the recently indentified UK variant – which is up to 70 percent more infectious than previous strains – have been reported in MIQ.

The new variant, known as B117, has a higher reproduction – or R number – leading to an increased rate of transmission.

University of Auckland epidemiologist Rod Jackson said while other strains usually infected two to three others, the new type meant one person could infect three or four others.

“That just multiplies – those three to four people will infect three to four more. You can see it rapidly gets away from you, which is what we’re seeing around the world at the moment.”

The new variant isn’t proving to be more deadly than previous ones, but Prof Jackson said this didn’t mean it was less of a threat.

“The more people who are infected, the more people are going to have severe symptoms and the more people are going to die, and the more likely our health services would be overwhelmed.”

He applauded the additional measures rolled out by the government to block the virus from the country.

From 15 January, anyone arriving from the UK and US will need to prove they’ve tested negative less than 72 hours before departing.

All of those returnees will also be tested within 24 hours of arriving back into the country and would be required to isolate until they get this test result.

But he said anyone coming from a country with community spread should have to have a rapid test at the airport before departure.

Overall, he believed there was no perfect pandemic response, but the current processes needed to be carried out with renewed vigilance in light of the new strain.

This included the whole journey, from before someone got on a plane to fly here to the process at managed isolation facilities.

“We need to make sure we’re going to do it better,” Prof Jackson said.

In particular, he said people needed to double down on using the Covid tracer app.

New Zealand Nurses Organisation (NZNO) associate professional services manager Kate Weston said the variant arriving in the country did not come as a surprise.

She said the country’s isolated location was an advantage, and allowed health services to prepare before the strain made its way here.

Weston said the NZNO had consistently pushed for adequate PPE availability and a review was underway to ensure N95 masks provided protection against the new strain.

“We are reviewing whether N95 [masks] are sufficent or whether we need to be looking at something more protective depending on the infectiousness of that new strain of the virus.”

E tū union’s head of aviation, Savage, understood the variant was unlikely to be transmitted in any new way.

“That just means border workers and avaiation workers just have to double their efforts and be especially vigilant that all of the health and safety systems are being followed, and that there are no gaps or accidental breaches of the system itself.”

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said on Sunday that those with the new type were being treated the same as those infected with other strains.

In a statement, a Ministry of Health spokesperson said the new strain presented no increased risk to the community.

A MIQ spokesperson said robust processes were in place to prevent the spread – such as stringent PPE use – and these controls were in constant review as more is learned about the virus.

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