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Vietnam finds new India-UK variant

Rise in UK cases stokes concerns over 3rd wave

HANOI, Vietnam, May 30, (AP): Vietnam has discovered a new coronavirus variant that’s a hybrid of strains first found in India and the U.K., the Vietnamese health minister said Saturday. Nguyen Thanh Long said scientists examined the genetic makeup of the virus that had infected some recent patients, and found the new version of the virus. He said lab tests suggested it might spread more easily than other versions of the virus. Viruses often develop small genetic changes as they reproduce, and new variants of the coronavirus have been seen almost since it was first detected in China in late 2019. The World Health Organization has listed four global “variants of concern” – the two first found in the UK and India, plus ones identified in South Africa and Brazil. Long says the new variant could be responsible for a recent surge in Vietnam, which has spread to 30 of the country’s 63 municipalities and provinces.

In this Jan. 23, 2021 file photo, a woman wearing face mask looks at her phone in Hanoi, Vietnam. (AP Photo)

Vietnam was initially a standout success in battling the virus – in early May, it had recorded just over 3,100 confirmed cases and 35 deaths since the start of the pandemic. But in the last few weeks, Vietnam has confirmed more than 3,500 new cases and 12 deaths, increasing the country’s total death toll to 47. Most of the new transmissions were found in Bac Ninh and Bac Giang, two provinces dense with industrial zones where hundreds of thousands of people work for major companies including Samsung, Canon and Luxshare, a partner in assembling Apple products. Despite strict health regulations, a company in Bac Giang discovered that one fifth of its 4,800 workers had tested positive for the virus. In Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s largest metropolis and home to 9 million, at least 85 people have tested positive as part of a cluster at a Protestant church, the Health Ministry said.

Worshippers sang and chanted while sitting close together without wearing proper masks or taking other precautions. Vietnam has since ordered a nationwide ban on all religious events. In major cities, authorities have banned large gatherings, closed public parks and non-essential business including in-person restaurants, bars, clubs and spas. Vietnam so far has vaccinated 1 million people with AstraZeneca shots. Last week, it sealed a deal with Pfizer for 30 million doses, which are scheduled to be delivered in the third and fourth quarters of this year. It is also in talks with Moderna that would give it enough shots to fully vaccine 80% of its 96 million people. Meanwhile, the number of new coronavirus infections in the UK hit a near two-month high Friday as British regulators authorized the use of the single-dose vaccine from Johnson & Johnson. The latest authorization, which takes the number of vaccines in the UK’s armory to four, comes amid growing speculation that the new variant of the virus first identified in India may prompt the British government to delay its next planned easing of lockdown restrictions in England.

Restrictions
Government figures showed that another 4,182 new confirmed cases were reported across the UK, the highest daily figure since April 1. The cases bring the total number of confirmed infections reported over the past seven days to 20,765, a 24% increase from the previous week. The rise prompted scientists to say the UK is now in the midst of a third wave of the pandemic. The number of cases remains well below the daily high of nearly 70,000 recorded in mid-January, during the peak of the second wave, but but the upward trend has raised questions about the UK government’s plan to lift all remaining social restrictions on June 21.

The government, which has lifted restrictions in stages and allowed pubs and restaurants to resume indoor service last week, has said it will make a decision on the next planned easing on June 14. The variant identified in India is believed to be responsible for up to 75% of new cases in the UK and more transmissible than the previously dominant strain of the virus. Critics argue that the Conservative government is to blame for the variant’s seeding in the UK. They say officials acted too slowly to impose the strictest quarantine requirements on everyone arriving from India, which is in the midst of a catastrophic resurgence of the virus. Many scientists say the increase in cases is no surprise but that the rapid rollout of vaccines will provide a firewall in a country that has seen Europe’s highest virus-related death toll at more than 127,500. While the most vulnerable people should have vaccine protection, there are worries the virus could spread widely among younger adults. As of Friday, 58% of the British population has received at least one vaccine dose and around 35% have gotten two shots.

The U.K. vaccination program started with the oldest age groups and aims to have offered a jab to all adults by the end of July. “It seems almost certain that we will face a third episode of rising COVID- 19 infections,” said James Naismith, a professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford. “It seems likely that the Indian variant will mostly confine itself to the unvaccinated younger population. It is much less likely to cause serious disease in this group. However, less likely is not the same as zero. With large enough numbers of infections, appreciable numbers will get seriously ill.” Also Friday, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said the vaccine by Johnson & Johnson met “the expected standards of safety, quality and effectiveness.” The regulator previously authorized the two-dose regimens developed by Pfizer/BioNTech, AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, and Moderna.

The regulator said the vaccine developed by J&J subsidiary Janssen has been shown to be 67% effective overall in preventing COVID-19 infection and 85% effective in preventing severe disease or hospitalization. It can be be stored at refrigerator temperatures of 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (36 to 47 F), which the regulator said makes it “ideal for distribution to care homes and other locations.” Details of which groups will get the vaccine have yet to be determined. There was speculation it might only be administered to older adults after it was linked to reports of rare blood clots. The Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine looks set to be used as part of the country’s planned booster program in the fall. The British government has amended its order from last year of 30 million J&J doses to 20 million. “As Janssen is a single-dose vaccine, it will play an important role in the months to come as we redouble our efforts to encourage everyone to get their jabs and potentially begin a booster program later this year,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said.

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