Australia is on edge as new mutant super-strains of highly infectious coronavirus threaten to wreak havoc across the country.
A family of four that flew in to New South Wales from South Africa have tested positive for the highly infectious coronavirus super-strain.
On Thursday night, NSW Health detected the South African variant in PCR samples from the family, who are in hotel quarantine.
The discovery has alarmed NSW Health authorities, as the South African strain has independently mutated the exact same genomic variant as the United Kingdom super-strain – making both strains nearly 50 per cent more transmissible than the original virus.
That means that there is an increased risk of the virus spreading out of NSW hotel quarantine to transport staff or cleaners who will need to take extra care.
NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said on Friday that 10 returning travellers had brought the more infectious viral variants to Sydney since November 30.
Six of them with the UK variant and four with the South African variant, with more testing being done to confirm the cases.
Analysis of by Imperial College London researchers confirmed the new strains may be nearly 50 percent more transmissible, based on samples taken from nearly 86,000 Britons.
NSW Health is taking extra precautions to move all 16 passengers who shared the family’s flight from South Africa to Sydney to Special Health Accommodation, where all coronavirus travellers are quarantined.
The flight crew had left Australia and arrived in Singapore by the time the test results were revealed, and are now undergoing testing there.
Dr Chant acknowledged the increased risk of transmission on Friday.
‘There are concerns that this South African strain does share a similar mutation from the UK that may be associated with increased transmissibility,’ she said.
‘That is why we are taking a very cautious approach there,’ Dr Chant said.
In both the UK and South Africa, the mutated strains are becoming the norm, displacing the original virus as they are highly adapted to spreading.
There is no evidence the disease is any more harmful than the original virus, only that it spreads faster and easier.
Medical teacher Dr John Campbell who combats coronavirus myths on his YouTube channel explained that the two different variants had developed the exact same genomic mutation but separately – just as both bats and birds had both evolved wings, but separately.
The new mutation makes the South African and UK variants equally hyper-infectious, due to identical changes in their spike protein casing he said in an update on December 20.
HOW TO CHECK IF YOU NEED A TEST IN NSW:
There were 86 separate health alerts for NSW venues on the NSW Health website and 11 for public transport routes as of Friday night.
The public is urged to check the NSW Health website here to see if you were at any of those places at the red-flagged dates and times.
If you were there at the times flagged, you may have come in contact with the virus and need to isolate, get tested.
New South Wales has no known community transmission of the South African and UK variants.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said the new strains are a challenge but was not unexpected.
‘Getting variations, mutations to a virus is not unusual,’ he said on Friday.
‘It’s what happens … it’s not unexpected but of course from time to time a variation can occur that presents an increased risk. Other times it can decrease risks.’
Australia has not shut its borders to the UK or South Africa as European Union nations and many others have done.
Britain halted flights from South Africa in December in a bid to isolate itself from the South African variant which has other changes in addition to the one it shares with the UK mutation, prompting fears vaccines may not be effective.
But the variant has already been detected in two locations in Britain in contacts of people who had recently visited the African nation.
Encouragingly, virologists and public health experts believe that vaccines made by companies like AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna will still be effective against the UK variant of coronavirus.
However it makes the task of vaccinating people in variant-hit nations more urgent due to the speed of its spread.
It could spell disaster for hospitals in hotspots like California where some health care systems and regions are already out of ICU beds, in states of ‘internal disaster’ and rationing care.
There are similar fears in the UK over the National Health Service (NHS) and its capacity to cope with the number of coronavirus patients that are expected as the new variant of the disease continues to spread, with new infections sometimes topping 50,000 per day.
In Queensland fears of the new variant have prompted panic buying and a lockdown after a Brisbane hotel quarantine cleaner tested positive on Thursday for the UK super-strain.
What is the ‘mutant COVID strain’ and why are experts concerned?
Coronaviruses mutate regularly, acquiring about one new mutation in their genome every two weeks.
Most mutations do not significantly change the way the virus acts.
This super strain, named B.1.1.7, was first identified in the UK in November.
It has since been found in France, Spain, Italy, Iceland, Japan, Singapore, Australia and now the United States.
The new COVID-19 variant has a mutation in the receptor binding domain (RBD) of the spike protein at position 501, where amino acid asparagine (N) has been replaced with tyrosine (Y).
It is more infectious than previous strains and potentially more harmful to children.
It is not, however, believed to be any more lethal.
Public Health England researchers compared 1,769 people infected with the new variant, with 1,769 who had one of the earlier strains of the virus.
Forty-two people in the group were admitted to hospital, of whom 16 had the new variant and 26 the wild type.
Twelve of the variant cases and 10 of the ‘older’ virus cases died within four weeks of testing.
Neither the hospitalization nor the mortality differences were statistically significant.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced on Friday that Brisbane, Logan, Ipswich, Moreton, and Redland residents will only be allowed to leave their homes for four reasons from 6pm on Friday to 6pm on Monday.
That includes essential shopping, work, healthcare or exercise around the neighbourhood. They will also need to wear face masks when leaving their homes.
Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath said Brisbane’s lockdown may continue past Monday.
‘The best case scenario is we get to 6pm on Monday and we’ve had no additional community cases and we would love for that to be the result,’ she told 4BC radio on Friday.
‘And it means we can start moving out of restrictions much quicker.
‘But of course worst case scenario is we’re seeing more community transmission and looking at everything that could be in between.
Ms D’Ath said it wasn’t just about the number of cases but whether they could all be traced.
‘We will reassess on an ongoing basis over the next 24, 48 and 72 hours.’
Dr Sonu Haikerwal, who runs a respiratory clinic on the Gold Coast, said the UK strain could easily breakout of Brisbane and spread.
‘We should really be thinking of [the Gold Coast] as an extension of Brisbane in this scenario, we are all so interconnected, especially the northern corridor,’ she told The Gold Coast Bulletin.
‘There is no border separating us, just a few kilometres, so we could certainly see a spread here if it isn’t contained.
‘It is the school holidays, people have been travelling all over so we urgently need to get this under control. A three-day lockdown is nothing compared to two months.’
Panic buying has broken out across greater Brisbane as 2.5 million residents prepare to head into a three-day-long lockdown to curb the spread of a UK strain of Covid-19.
Long queues of shoppers with trolleys packed with groceries were photographed at a Coles at New Farm.
Shelves were stripped bare in the fresh produce section of a Woolworths store with toilet paper supplies dwindling in some supermarkets.
Car parks were filled to capacity while lines of shoppers formed outside of supermarkets and snaked around shopping centres.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk urged residents to think of the three-day-long lockdown as a ‘long weekend’.
‘We need to do this. I’ve accepted the strong advice from Dr Young,’ Ms Palaszczuk said.
‘If we do not do this now, it could end up being a 30-day lockdown.’
Fears of the super-strains have led to calls for NSW to take stricter measures at the Queensland border.
Acting Premier John Barilaro, however, said NSW would not close its border with Queensland – but anybody in NSW who had been to Brisbane’s lockdown zone since January 2 has been told to isolate themselves until Monday night.
New South Wales bares the brunt of Australia’s coronavirus risk as it processes most of the returning travellers.
Mr Barilaro complained on Radio 2GB last week that Sydney had processed 105,000 returning travellers since March compared with just 29,000 for Queensland and 22,000 for Western Australia.
Of the 105,000 returnees who come to NSW, Mr Barilaro said half end up moving on to other states.
‘So we’re like the dry cleaner or the car wash. We clean them and we send them back to their states clean,’ he told 2GB host Ben Fordham on Monday.
‘All that risk lies with NSW and, of course, our health system – and when we get lectured by these others, it is bloody hard to accept when they’re not doing the heavy lifting.’
NSW recorded four new cases of coronavirus caught locally in the 24 hours to 8pm on Thursday, plus seven new cases in returned travellers, bringing the state’s total to 115 active cases on Friday.
An urgent alert has been issued by NSW Health after they were advised several new venues in Sydney have been exposed to Covid.
The majority are from venues in Sydney’s inner-west in the suburb Burwood, with one on the Northern Beaches at Avalon.
Anyone who visited Burwood’s Artisaint Café (10.30am-11am), Bing Lee (11.25am-11.40am), Westfield Shopping Centre (11.45am-1.30pm), Kmart (11.45am-12.15pm), House (12.20pm-12.30pm) and Coles (12.40pm-1.20pm) on January 6 is considered a casual contact.
People are advised to get tested immediately and then self-isolate until receiving a negative result.
In a concerning revelation, fragments of the virus that causes Covid were detected in a sewage treatment plant at Northmead, in Sydney’s west, on Friday.
This catchment takes sewage from surrounding suburbs including Merrylands West, Greystanes, South Wentworthville, Merrylands, Westmead, Wentworthville, Pendle Hill, Northmead, North Rocks, Parramatta and Constitution Hill.
NSW Health authorities are keen to ensure that the South African variant does not make it out of quarantine, as it is difficult enough to contain the existing virus.
South African funeral home directors have spoken of ‘running out of coffins’ after being overwhelmed by a 120 per cent surge in Covid-19 deaths thanks to the rapidly-spreading super-strain.
The country is facing a highly-infectious mutant strain of coronavirus, which has caused the spike in deaths and cases – 422 people died yesterday whilst more than 15,000 tested positive for the virus.
Funeral undertakers are now hoping the government will find a vaccine and have it rolled out across the country amid high demand for coffins, increasing numbers of their staff dying from the virus and policy cancellations.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday he is ‘incredibly worried’ about the highly-infectious South African coronavirus mutation which top experts fear could scupper Britain’s vaccine roll-out.
The UK has shut its borders to South Africa as it races to contain its own super-strain, which has evolved the same super-infectious spike protein as the South African variant.
The new South African coronavirus mutant, called 501.V2, was announced in Cape Town in December and is believed to be a more extreme variant than Britain’s new Covid strain which plunged millions into miserable Christmas lockdowns.
Cases in South Africa have soared from fewer than 3,000 a day at the start of December to more than 15,000 per day, with the mutant accounting for up to 90 percent of those new infections.
Muzi Hlengwa, the president of the National Funeral Practitioners Association of South Africa said he had never witnessed anything like this during his career.
‘It is something you have never seen before. We have run out of coffins, we have run out of space at the mortuary,’ he said.
‘Some funerals have had to be postponed because there is no burial space. We even have cremations done at night.’
Several countries have banned travellers from South Africa to try and contain the spread of the new strain, including the UK, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
The UK is now suffering its worst coronavirus medical emergency to date as the newly infectious variant takes hold, spreading faster and wider than ever before.
London mayor Sadiq Khan declared a major incident this afternoon as he said the spread of coronavirus was now ‘out of control’ in the capital.
The number of cases in London is now above 1,000 per 100,000 people, he said, with a 27 per cent increase in hospital patients between December 30 and January 6.
The 7,034 people now in hospital with coronavirus represents a 35 per cent increase compared to the peak of the pandemic in April.
Mr Khan said over the last three days alone the NHS has announced 477 deaths in London hospitals following a positive test for Covid-19.
While the infection rate for the city as a whole is one in 30, it is as high as one in 20 in some localised areas.
In a letter to Boris Johnson he has demanded churches and other places of worship be closed and for face masks to be worn routinely outside of the home, including in supermarket queues and other places outside that may be crowded.
What the lockdown means for you:
Residents living in greater Brisbane will only be allowed to leave their homes for four reasons from 6pm on Friday.
1) Essential work
2) Healthcare or compassionate care
3) Essential shopping
4) Exercise in the local neighbourhood
Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has urged residents to avoid non-essential activities like going to the cinema.
Households will not be allowed to have more than two visitors per day.
Restaurants and cafes will only be allowed to open for takeaway.
Funerals and weddings will also be limited to 20 people.
Masks will also be made mandatory, though children under the age of 12 will be exempt.
The lockdown will be lifted at 6pm on Monday.