(Bloomberg) -- Two cases of the new Covid-19 strain raising alarm in parts of southern Africa and unnerving financial markets worldwide have been found in travelers in compulsory quarantine in Hong Kong.
A traveler from South Africa was found to have the variant -- currently known as B.1.1.529 -- while the other case was identified in a person who’d traveled from Canada and was quarantined in the hotel room opposite his, the Hong Kong government said late Thursday. The traveler from South Africa used a mask with a valve that doesn’t filter exhaled air and may have transmitted the virus to his neighbor when the hotel room door was open, a health department spokesperson said Friday.
B.1.1.529 carries an unusually large number of mutations and is “clearly very different” from previous incarnations, Tulio de Oliveira, a bio-informatics professor who runs gene-sequencing institutions at two South African universities, said at a briefing on Thursday. Early PCR test results showed that 90% of 1,100 new infections in the South African province that includes Johannesburg were caused by the new variant, de Oliveira tweeted.
South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the mutation was “of serious concern,” while World Health Organization officials have met to discuss the virus.
In Botswana -- which neighbors South Africa -- the new variant has been detected in vaccinated people, Kereng Masupu, coordinator of the Presidential Covid-19 Task Force, said in statement. The U.K. said late Thursday that it will temporarily halt flights from South Africa and five neighboring countries on concerns about B.1.1.529. Other nations have stepped up monitoring of travelers from the region.
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Twelve people who were staying in rooms close to the two Hong Kong cases are now undergoing compulsory 14-day quarantines at a government facility, according to the statement out Thursday.
Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world that’s yet to have a recorded community outbreak of delta, the more contagious variant first detected in India that has now become the dominant virus strain worldwide. The mutation has forced some countries who were able to keep Covid out through quarantines and border curbs in 2020 to abandon that approach, instead pivoting to treating the virus as endemic.
Call for Ban
The cases of the new variant may prompt Hong Kong to tighten what is already one of the toughest quarantine regimes in the world, with travelers from some places isolated in hotels for up to 21 days.
David Hui, a professor of respiratory medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a member of the city’s Covid advisory panel, told local radio Friday that Hong Kong should ban all returnees from Africa because of the variant, according to The Standard.hk.
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The city banned the use of masks with exhalation valves or vents in hotel quarantine this week because of the variant case situation. Such masks don’t effectively filter exhaled air, the government said.
Hong Kong also required air purifiers be installed in hotel quarantine rooms if the guest intends to exercise with a stepper, exercise bike, walking pad or treadmill to “remove aerosol generated,” during such activities, according to a government statement. Other countries such as Australia have seen cases of Covid transmit in the quarantine environment, fueling criticism that hotels aren’t adequate locations for isolating travelers and suspected cases.
(Updates throughout with more details on the two cases and virus expert commentary.)
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