Two cases of the new Covid-19 strain raising alarm in parts of southern Africa have been found in travelers arriving in Hong Kong.
A traveler from South Africa was found to have the variant -- currently known as B.1.1.529 -- while the other case was identified in a person quarantined in the hotel room opposite them, the Hong Kong government said late Thursday. That person may have been infected as air flowed between the rooms, according to the government.
B.1.1.529 carries an unusually large number of mutations and is "clearly very different" from previous incarnations, Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor who runs gene-sequencing institutions at two South African universities, said at a briefing on Thursday.
South Africa's Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the mutation was "of serious concern." Virologists detected almost 100 cases linked to the variant in the country to date, said Anne von Gottberg, clinical microbiologist & head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. World Health Organization officials have met to discuss the virus, which has also been detected in Botswana.
In Botswana -- which neighbors South Africa -- the new variant has been detected in vaccinated people, Kereng Masupu, coordinator of the Presidential Covid-19 Task Force, said in statement. The U.K. said late Thursday that it will temporarily halt flights from South Africa and five neighboring countries on concerns about B.1.1.529.
Twelve people who were staying in rooms close to the two Hong Kong cases are undergoing compulsory 14-day quarantines at a government facility, according to the statement Thursday.
Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world that's yet to have a recorded community outbreak of delta, the more contagious variant first detected in India that has now become the dominant strain worldwide. The mutation has forced some countries who were able to keep Covid out through quarantines and border curbs in 2020 to abandon that approach, instead pivoting to treating the virus as endemic.
The cases of the new variant may prompt Hong Kong to tighten what is already one of the toughest quarantine regimes in the world, with travelers from some places isolated in hotels for up to 21 days.
The city banned the use of masks with exhalation valves or vents in hotel quarantine this week, because they don't effectively filter exhaled air. An investigation found that someone may have transmitted the virus to others while wearing one of these masks when their hotel room door was open. It's unclear from government statements whether this person is the carrier of the new variant.
Hong Kong also required air purifiers be installed in hotels quarantine rooms if the guest intends to exercise, to "remove aerosol generated during exercise," according to a government statement. Other countries such as Australia have seen cases of Covid transmitted in the quarantine environment, fueling criticism that hotels aren't adequate locations for housing travelers and suspected cases.
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