HONG KONG - Hong Kong has detected a newly identified coronavirus variant that is spreading in South Africa and that has prompted Britain to ban flights from some African countries.
The new variant, called B.1.1.529, was found earlier this month in two men quarantined separately at the Regal Airport Hotel in Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK reported on Thursday (Nov 25).
The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) confirmed that the new variant was brought in by a man who had flown in from South Africa on Nov 11. He tested positive for the coronavirus two days later, the Washington Post reported.
This patient, 36, then allegedly passed on the virus to another man who was staying in a neighbouring room at the hotel, RTHK reported.
The Washington Post reported that the second man, 62, had arrived from Canada.
The CHP said that latest investigations into the two cases showed that they had highly similar genetic sequences, adding that the viruses they carried belong to the B.1.1.529 variant.
"Scientific information on the public health significance about this lineage is lacking at the moment. It is classified by the World Health Organisation as 'variants under monitoring'," RTHK reported the CHP as saying.
The first patient was found to have worn a reusable mask with an air valve, and further investigation by University of Hong Kong microbiologist Yuen Kwok Yung found that the mask had contributed to the spread of the virus through airborne transmission to the second man, RTHK reported.
The government has since banned the use of masks with exhalation valves or vents during hotel quarantine as they do not effectively filter exhaled air, Bloomberg reported.
Hong Kong also required air purifiers be installed in quarantine rooms at hotels if the guest intends to exercise, to "remove aerosol generated during exercise", according to a government statement.
Following the detection of the two cases, 12 people who stayed in the three rooms near the two men from Nov 11 to 14 have been taken to Penny's Bay Quarantine Centre to undergo mandatory quarantine for 14 days, The Standard newspaper reported. No related infections have been detected so far.
Professor David Hui, from the Chinese University Hong Kong, said on Friday that he was concerned that the new variant could diminish the effectiveness of current Covid-19 vaccines. The Hong Kong government expert consultant suggested that the city could consider banning travellers from the southern part of Africa, which includes South Africa and Botswana, media outlet HK01 reported.
The new variant is driving a spike in new Covid-19 infections in South Africa, scientists said on Thursday.
So far, 22 positive cases have been identified in South Africa, according to South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the New York Times reported.
Botswana's Health Ministry also confirmed in a statement that four cases of the new variant were detected in people who were all fully vaccinated.
The British authorities said that the new variant has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus.
"This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is under way to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility," said British Health Security Agency chief executive Jenny Harries.