Health officials had earlier confirmed cross-infection between two guests on the same floor of the Regal Airport Hotel in Hong Kong after they both tested positive for the virus. The South African and another guest were quarantined in opposite rooms. Officials said both persons were fully vaccinated.
As a precautionary measure, 12 people who were staying in rooms close to the infected persons have been placed under compulsory 14-day quarantine at a government facility.
The new variant B.1.1.529, designated “Nu”, has an unusually large number of mutations, and was first detected in South Africa. Apart from the two cases in Hong Kong, 100 cases have been detected so far in South Africa and Botswana.
One reason the new variant has alarmed experts is because it has 32 mutations in what is called the “spike protein” — the part of the virus that is targeted by vaccines. In comparison, the Delta variant that led to a monumental surge in Covid cases across the world earlier this year had 13 to 17 mutations.
The South African traveller was reportedly found wearing a reusable mask with an exhaust valve on multiple occasions when collecting meals and disposing rubbish. Such valves only filter the air when it is inhaled, but not when exhaled.
Yuen Kwok-yung, Hong Kong’s leading microbiologist, termed valved masks “selfish” as they only protect the user.
“What’s special about these valve masks is that they are masks that are a bit selfish... when the air is breathed out through the air valve, it is not filtered, which is not good. It is best to use the proper ones,” he told reporters on Monday while inspecting the cross-infection.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has convened an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the spread of the new Covid variant.
Tulio de Oliveira, the director of South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and innovation, called B.1.1.529 a “variant of great concern”.
“This new variant is really worrisome at the mutational level. This new variant, B.1.1.529 seems to spread very quick! In less than 2 weeks now dominates all infections following a devastating Delta wave in South Africa,” he wrote on Twitter.
This new variant, B.1.1.529 seems to spread very quick! In less than 2 weeks now dominates all infections following a devastating Delta wave in South Africa (Blue new variant, now at 75% of last genomes and soon to reach 100%) pic.twitter.com/Z9mde45Qe0
— Tulio de Oliveira (@Tuliodna) November 25, 2021
In the wake of the new strain’s discovery, countries in Europe and Asia have tightened their border restrictions.
Britain banned flights from South Africa and neighbouring countries and asked returning British citizens to quarantine themselves. The European Union is also likely to halt air travel from the region, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said.
Italy imposed an entry ban on people who have visited South African states in the last 14 days, while Israel prime minister Naftali Bennett said the country is “on the verge of a state of emergency”.
India has issued an advisory to all its states to amplify testing and screening of international travellers from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong. Singapore has also restricted arrivals from the region.