What we know about Vietnam’s ‘very dangerous’ hybrid coronavirus variant

WHO investigates new strain, prompting calls to add Southeast Asian nation to red list

People wear face masks while shopping in Hanoi
(Image credit: Linh Pham/Getty Images)

Vietnam has suspended international flights into its capital Hanoi after authorities discovered a new Covid strain that is a combination of the Indian and Kent variants, also known as delta and alpha, respectively.

Flights into “commercial hub” Ho Chi Minh City have also been put on hold as the government seeks to stem the spread of the variant that “it fears is fanning the Southeast Asian nation’s worst outbreak of the pandemic”, The Telegraph reports.

Having successfully suppressed the virus for most of last year, the country has seen rising infections since late April, which now account for more than half of its 6,856 reported cases.

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‘Hybrid’ variant

“Vietnam has uncovered a new Covid-19 variant combining characteristics of the two existing variants first found in India and the UK”, Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long told a government meeting on Saturday. “That the new one is an Indian variant with mutations that originally belong to the UK variant is very dangerous”, he added, according to a recording obtained by Reuters.

Long also said “laboratory cultures of the new variant showed the virus replicated itself very quickly”, the news agency reports, which may explain “why so many new cases had appeared in different parts of the country in a short period of time”.

The Vietnamese government has said “the new variant combines features of the mutations first identified in India and the UK”, including being far more “easily transmissible by air” than the original Covid virus, the BBC reports.

Ho Chi Minh City, the largest and most populous city in Vietnam, is the site of the “latest outbreak”, the broadcaster adds, with “at least 125 positive cases” centred around a visiting Christian mission in the southern city.

The government has announced “all events that gather more than 10 people in public are banned city-wide, but the city is considering to lower the number of people to just five”, while surge testing has also been launched, targeting “as many as 100,000 people each day, focusing on groups considered to be high risk”, the broadcaster says.

Health Minister Long said Vietnam would “soon publish genome data of the newly identified variant”, Reuters reports, with Maria van Kerkhove, World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Lead for Covid-19, telling The Telegraph that the WHO is currently investigating Vietnam’s data.

The WHO has so far identified four variants of concern – the strains that emerged first in India, Britain, South Africa and Brazil – with Van Kerkhove adding that the WHO’s “country office is working with the Ministry of Health in Vietnam and we expect more information soon”.

Red list?

Abhishek Rimal, the Regional Coordinator for Public Health in Asia Pacific at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told The Telegraph that while investigations are ongoing, “epidemiologists from the country… suspect it will have even higher transmissibility than the original strain or any of the variants”.

“If confirmed, we could see a steep rise of Covid-19 in Vietnam and even beyond around Southeast Asia”, he added.

“China has tightened its border security” amid fears that “the variant could be spread through illegal border crossings”, the paper adds. However, concern is also rising that “like other variants” the new strain could spread wider “through quarantine or tracing loopholes in arrival countries as infected people travel”.

Vietnam is not currently on the UK’s travel red list, meaning passengers arriving in the UK from any of the country’s three international airports are not currently forced to undergo 10 days of hotel quarantine on arrival.

The government is currently “coming under fire for a delay in implementing the highest levels of control on movements from India”, The Independent says, with critics arguing that a failure to add the country to the red list “allowed the entry of the B1.617.2 variant” which first surged in areas like Bolton, Blackburn and Bedford.

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