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New strains widen Covid war

05 May 2021 / 12:05 H.

PETALING JAYA: It looks like Malaysia has yet to turn the corner in the Covid-19 war even as the government ramps up its immunisation drive. The number of cases continues to rise by 2,000 to 3,000 every day and, health experts fear, the emergence of various new strains, some more virulent, will make the fight
even tougher.

Datuk Dr Awang Bulgiba Awang Mahmud, who heads the Independent Covid-19 Vaccination Advisory Committee, pointed out that any new variant will likely raise the rate of infections and increase the number of new cases daily.

“This will significantly raise the number of people who need to be admitted to hospitals, putting additional strain on our healthcare system,” he told theSun.

Awang Bulgiba said the situation is further aggravated by a weakness in the Malaysian healthcare system.

“We do not conduct a lot of genome sequencing and associated analyses, so we cannot tell if these new strains are the ones causing the rapid increase in infections and the rise in the number of patients needing intensive care,” he said.

So far, at least four new strains have been detected in Malaysia, with the latest one from India, emerging on the local radar last week.

Apart from that are strains from the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and South Africa. Some of these strains emerged elsewhere, such as the United States and Brazil, and are rapidly mutating.

This has raised fears of invisible transmission chains leading to the high rate of infections.

Awang Bulgiba warned that there remains a high possibility of more new variants of the virus slipping through the cracks.

“We should have reverted to the 14-day quarantine period for international travellers sooner,” he said.

Malaysia had set a standard 14-day quarantine requirement until January, when it was shortened to 10 days. It reverted to the
14-day quarantine last month when the B.1.351 South African strain was detected.

Awang Bulgiba said the decision by the Health Ministry to moderate contact tracing efforts could also be a factor in the rapid spread of infections.

“There are probably many asymptomatic cases out there spreading Covid-19 without realising it. The number of active cases we see now may not actually reflect the true picture,” he added.

The UK, South African and Brazilian variants are also said to be more infectious and, if allowed to spread, are more likely to displace the local strain and make the third wave of infections even worse.

Awang Bulgiba said one way to address the problem is to start performing genome surveillance, combined with epidemiological analyses.

“I suggest that we randomly sequence some of the viruses found in infected persons in Malaysia, particularly from the large clusters,
to see if the newer variants are now found in the country.

“We should also test whether the antibodies B-cells and T-cells, produced in response to the vaccines, will work against these new variants.”

Virologist Dr Sandy Loh of Nottingham University Malaysia agrees that not enough is being done to capture mild or asymptomatic Covid-19 cases.

“This makes it strongly believable that invisible transmission chains have emerged in Malaysia,” she said.

To help prevent the spread of the disease, she suggested that the country reduce crowd activities and ban interstate travel altogether.

Currently, interstate travel is allowed selectively. For instance, college students are allowed to go home for Hari Raya Aidilfitri.

Loh said Malaysia should provide Covid-19 home test kits, as being done in the United Kingdom and the European Union.

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