Vietnam’s Health Ministry announced Saturday that it had detected a highly transmissible new variant of the coronavirus that has helped fuel a recent wave of COVID-19 infections in the country.
Genetic sequencing indicated that the new variant was a mix of the coronavirus strains first detected in the United Kingdom and India, said Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long, according to the VnExpress newspaper.
The minister said that the new variant was particularly contagious via air and that viral cultures have revealed that it replicates extremely quickly, the newspaper reported.
“The new variant is very dangerous,” Long said in a statement.
The Health Ministry didn’t return a Saturday afternoon request for comment.
Scientists said that further study was needed to determine the effect of a variant in “real world settings.”
“A lot of different mutations happen as the virus is transmitted and most of them are not of clinical significance,” said Todd Pollack, a Hanoi-based infectious-disease expert at Harvard Medical School. “Just because they say [the new variant] has features of one and the other … doesn’t mean they got together in one patient and spit out some combined hybrid ‘supervirus.'”
There were seven known coronavirus variants in Vietnam before Long’s announcement, according to Reuters.
Vietnam, which has reported around 6,400 COVID-19 infections and 47 deaths, has been one of the world’s coronavirus containment success stories. A well-run public health care system, quarantine camps operated by the military and strict, targeted lockdowns kept case numbers low until late April, when a spike in infections began.
Many of the recent infections were detected in two industrialized provinces in northern Vietnam, where factory employees often work close together. Plants there that manufacture for global brands like Apple have implemented social distancing measures, Reuters reported. Such factories are key to Vietnam’s export sector, which has boomed amid trade tensions between the United States and China.
Restrictions are also in place in Hanoi, the capital, and Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s economic hub.
Singapore and Taiwan, which had effectively eliminated transmission of the coronavirus at the start of the year, recently reintroduced curbs as infections return.
Many countries that managed the pandemic with “non-pharmaceutical interventions are finding that more transmissible variants are more difficult to control with these measures,” said Pollack. “This is the biggest challenge that [Vietnam is] facing since COVID-19 came onto the scene.”
Vietnam is operating one of the slower inoculation programs in the world, with fewer than 0.1 percent of its 103 million residents having been fully vaccinated as of Friday. It has approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca and Sputnik V shots and recently signed a deal to buy more than 30 million Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses. Vietnam is also developing its own Nanocovax vaccine, whose final-stage trials are set for completion in the second half of the year.
Hanoi has a rocky relationship with Beijing and, unlike many other middle income nations, it has not approved the use of Chinese-developed vaccines.