WHO says investigating 'unverified' report of South African variant in Singapore

A woman wearing a mask passes a flight information board at Changi Airport in Singapore March 5, 2020. REUTERS/Edgar Su
A woman wearing a mask passes a flight information board at Changi Airport in Singapore on 5 March, 2020. (Reuters file photo)

SINGAPORE — The South African COVID-19 variant, or the B.1.351 strain, has been detected in Singapore based on unofficial sources but the information has yet to be verified by authorities here, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In response to media queries from Yahoo News Singapore, the WHO said on Wednesday (21 April), “We are investigating further why this report (detection of B.1.351 in Singapore) has not yet been verified, and will adjust as necessary in the next available Weekly Epi Update.”

The organisation was referring to its weekly epidemiological updates on COVID-19, where the South African variant has been listed under Singapore as "not verified" by local authorities since 23 March. Its latest report dated 20 April continues to list the variant as "not verified".

According to the WHO, labelling the strain as "not verified” means that the organisation "has learnt from unofficial sources that the variant has been detected, but this detection has not yet been officially verified".

Status of Brazilian and UK variants

No comments were made in the WHO reports about the Brazilian variant, also known as the P.1 strain, in Singapore, indicating that there has been no reported detection of the variant.

The latest WHO epidemiological update also lists the UK variant – or the B.1.1.7 strain – as "verified" by official sources. The Ministry of Health (MOH) confirmed in end-January that 25 cases of the UK variant were detected in Singapore between 23 December last year and 26 January.

No other variants were detected in Singapore then, according to the local authorities. A case was last Sunday confirmed to have tested preliminarily positive for the UK strain.

Yahoo News Singapore reached out to the MOH last Friday for comment on the WHO reports before 20 April regarding the South African variant. To date, Singapore has recorded 60,865 coronavirus cases, of which over 4,000 are imported.

Contagious variants around the world

Out of many thousands, three variants of concern – the UK, South African and Brazilian strains – have attracted international attention due to their increased transmissibility and virulence.

The trio share a particular mutation – named N501Y – that is thought to make them more contagious. This mutation occurs on the virus' spike protein, which attaches to human cells.

The South African and Brazilian variants share another key mutation – named E484K – that is suspected to reduce the immunity acquired either by a past infection or a vaccine.

The UK variant first emerged in September last year and is said to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than previously dominant variants. According to WHO data, the strain has spread to over 130 countries, including Singapore.

The South African variant, which was detected in August, is thought to be 1.5 times more transmissible and can potentially increase the risk of in-hospital mortality by 20 per cent, according to the WHO. It has spread to over 80 countries.

Studies have shown the Brazilian variant to be as much as 2.5 times more contagious than the original virus and more resistant to antibodies.

The particular variant, which emerged in December last year in or around the northern Brazilian city of Manaus, has spread to over 50 countries. It was first identified in Japan, where it was detected in travellers returning from Brazil.

Global concerns have also been sparked by the emergence of a new "double mutant" COVID-19 strain first discovered in India named B.1.617, which appears to be the main driving force behind a surge in new cases in the country.

On Tuesday, the MOH announced a slew of revised border measures to take effect from 11.59pm on Thursday, including stricter ones for travellers arriving from India as well as lifting bans for those with recent travel history to the UK and South Africa.

Preliminary studies show that the vaccines from AstraZeneca and China's Sinovac are partly effective against the Brazilian variant. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, one of two approved for use here, has also been proven effective against the strain, but studies have shown that it is less effective against the South African variant.

Two new Moderna vaccines designed to protect against the South African and Brazilian variants have yielded promising results when tested in mice, according to recent data. The original Moderna vaccine is approved for use in Singapore.

As of last Sunday, some 1.36 million individuals in Singapore have received at least one dose of either the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine, with more than 849,700 of them having received their second dose of the same vaccine and completed the full vaccination regimen.

A breakdown of how many of each vaccine type is administered here is not publicly available.

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