Malaysia, Israel identify new coronavirus strains

Israeli govt finds 4 cases of highly infectious UK variant; KL says its variant's infectivity still unknown

PUTRAJAYA • Malaysia's Health Ministry has identified a new Covid-19 strain in the country from samples taken in Sabah state.

The ministry's director-general, Tan Sri Noor Hisham Abdullah, said it is still unknown whether the strain - dubbed the "A701B" mutation - is more infectious than usual.

Israel, meanwhile, has detected four cases of the new, highly infectious variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in Britain, the Israeli Health Ministry said on Wednesday.

Dr Noor Hisham, speaking about the strain found in Sabah, said on Wednesday: "It is similar to a strain found in South Africa, Australia and the Netherlands.

"The Covid-19 virus always mutates, and we are always monitoring and researching the implication of the different strains towards the population."

He added: "We detected this mutation in 60 samples taken from Covid-19 patients under the Benteng Lahad Datu cluster in Sabah. We still have not ascertained whether this strain has a high infectivity level and whether it is more aggressive than usual."

Malaysia had previously discovered a mutation said to have 10 times more infectivity than normal strains, he said.

He was referring to the D614G mutation of Covid-19 that hit Kedah around August, and the northern state had then saw a rapid rise in infections.

On the Covid-19 mutation found in Britain, which is highly infectious, Dr Noor Hisham said the ministry is monitoring the situation.

The Malaysian government, however, does not intend to backtrack on the mandatory quarantine period, owing to the discovery of the mutation in Britain.

"If we look at the data of our quarantine ruling, there is not much difference between 10 days and 14 days of isolation," said Dr Noor Hisham.

"Most of the time, an individual will develop symptoms within the first week.

"If the quarantine period is only seven days, then maybe there is high risk, but 10 days or 14 days is not much different, based on our experience," he added.

Travellers arriving in Malaysia from abroad have to undergo Covid-19 tests, and serve a quarantine order if they test negative.

Those who test positive will be sent to hospital for isolation and treatment.

In Israel, three of four cases detected were returnees from England. They are isolating at a hotel designated as a Covid-19 quarantine facility, the Israeli Health Ministry said.

The fourth case is under investigation, it added.

The new variant of the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus is spreading rapidly in Britain and prompting high levels of concern among its European neighbours, some of which have cut transport links.

Israel closed its borders to foreigners in March, with some exceptions including students and journalists.

Under new restrictions adopted this week, it nixed those exceptions for non-citizen arrivals from Britain, South Africa and Denmark, citing the risk of the new coronavirus strain.

From Wednesday evening until Jan 1, all Israelis who return from abroad must isolate at hotel quarantine facilities, according to a directive posted to the Health Ministry's website.

Israel launched a coronavirus vaccination drive last Saturday and has vaccinated 70,000 out of its population of nine million, government data shows.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2020, with the headline Malaysia, Israel identify new coronavirus strains. Subscribe