Singapore variant of COVID-19 unlikely to emerge due to low cases: experts

Coronavirus Covid-19 Protection and Vaccine. Doctor drawing up solution from vaccine bottle and filling syringe injection for patient vaccination in medical clinic, Coronavirus in background
(Getty Images file photo)

SINGAPORE — There is "little to no chance" that a local variant of the novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, would emerge in Singapore given the city-state's smaller outbreak of cases, said local infectious diseases experts.

There is no evidence of any large outbreaks of more contagious variants imported from overseas despite people who had flown into Singapore and tested positive for the UK variant, added Professor Gavin J Smith, the Duke-NUS Medical School's interim director of the emerging infectious diseases programme.

"This can be credited to the rigorous physical controls, such as mandatory quarantine and stay home notices for people coming to Singapore. If community cases emerge, we have very effective tracking and testing capabilities, combined with social distancing, to prevent large outbreaks," Prof Smith added.

In end-January, the Ministry of Health (MOH) confirmed that 25 cases of the UK variant were detected here between 23 December last year and 26 January. No other variants were detected in Singapore then, according to authorities.

Dr Paul Tambyah, senior consultant at Singapore's National University Hospital, also noted that the number of COVID-19 cases here has been relatively low recently. As such, the president-elect of the International Society of Infectious Diseases said it is unlikely that local authorities would find new mutations.

More contagious strains of the virus, such as those first detected in the UK, Brazil, and South Africa, have triggered global concern, with new variants emerging recently in the Philippines and India.

For instance, the UK variant – or the B.1.1.7 strain – was first detected in September last year and is said to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than previously dominant variants. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, the strain has spread to over 100 countries, including Singapore.

Japanese health authorities on Monday (5 April) expressed concern that imported variants of the coronavirus are driving a nascent fourth wave of cases in the country, about three-and-a-half months ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

Singapore has recorded 60,554 COVID-19 cases as of Wednesday, of which 3,711 are imported. Comparatively, the UK has over 4.36 million COVID-19 infections, Brazil has some 13.1 million cases and South Africa has 1.55 million cases.

Prof Smith said that while some variants spread more easily, there is no conclusive evidence that they are more deadly – the biggest concern currently is whether they are resistant to existing vaccines.

"So far, the evidence shows that vaccines can still prevent infection and major sickness, but the effectiveness of some of the vaccines is lower against some of the strains," according to Prof Smith.

Among the variants, most of the vaccines work well against the UK strain, he said. But only a few have been tested against the South African variant and in those tests, a drop in the vaccine’s effectiveness has been documented, he added.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand that vaccines still provide "excellent protection" against COVID-19, with growing evidence that they reduce virus transmission and consequently, the burden on the healthcare system, said Prof Smith.

"In summary, we already have what we need – physical controls and vaccines – to deal with these variants in Singapore," he noted.

At the time of publication, the MOH has not replied to queries by Yahoo News Singapore on the updated number of cases of the UK variant as well as other variants circulating in Singapore, if any.

According to the WHO's weekly epidemiological update on COVID-19 dated 30 March, the South African variant – or the B.1.351 strain – has been listed under Singapore as "unverified" by local authorities.

Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said he has "no doubt" that some variants, including the B.1.351 strain, are in Singapore but noted that the damage has been minimal "so far".

"We can improve and upgrade our safety measures just as the virus upgraded its transmissibility, simply by using certified masks," he cautioned.

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