Tackling the spread of more contagious strains of COVID-19

With more contagious strains of COVID-19 rapidly spreading across the globe, countries must now rely more on internal testing and stringent hygiene measures to prevent new outbreaks.

By Ramya Dilipkumar

Since mid-December 2020, the United States (US), Canada, Japan, Italy, Australia, China, New Zealand, Demark and many other countries have imposed tighter entry restrictions on incoming or returning travellers, especially from the United Kingdom (UK), South Africa, Ireland and Brazil, after more virulent strains of COVID-19 were detected in these countries. Latest entry measures range from mandatory pre-departure testing for all or select travellers, to entry bans on travellers and flights from the United Kingdom, South Africa, Ireland and Brazil.

Tighter border controls failed to prevent imported cases of the UK variant of COVID-19, found to be the most contagious yet, in the US, Australia, and at least 56 other countries detected as of 20 January 2021. Stranded nationals and essential workers of these countries were already travelling back home at a time when the more contagious strains of the virus were spreading in their countries of departure. The UK variant of COVID-19 was detected in Kent County in September 2020, but authorities were unaware until mid-December that this strain was possibly 70 percent more transmissible than the previous versions. Now governments across the world will rely more on tighter internal controls, in addition to border restrictions, to try and prevent catastrophic outbreaks from these new strains in the near-term.

As of January 2021, the UK is averaging well over 30,000 new COVID-19 infections and close to 2,000 deaths daily. In South Africa, the new strain which is 50 percent more infectious than prior variants, has resulted in a daily average of around 12,000 new cases; both countries have strict internal movement controls and gathering limits in force. Health officials warned that the UK strain of COVID-19 was spreading fast in the US as well, with at least 76 people infected across 12 states and it was likely to become the dominant strain by March, with similar predictions made by Australian officials.

The good news is that while the new variants of COVID-19 are more contagious, they are not more virulent and the symptoms and effects of the virus have largely not changed. Measures like rapid testing, targeted lockdowns, social distancing and hygiene controls are still the most effective tools in trying to prevent the spread of the more contagious strains.The risk of a local transmission of the UK, Brazil, Ireland and South Africa COVID-19 variants increases when testing and self-isolation/quarantine protocols are not properly adhered to by travellers before and after arrival. For instance, a traveller may test too early or come in contact with other infected individuals right after they get a negative COVID-19 test result prior to departure or upon arrival. To prevent the spread of infection from asymptomatic cases, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends self-isolating for at least seven days before testing and quarantining for at least 10 days after potential exposure.

As new variations of COVID-19 are detected in more countries, tighter international border restrictions will be implemented on short notice. Pre-departure testing will become mandatory for all international travel, and possibly even domestic inter-state travel in the coming weeks. To tackle the spread of the new strain of infections, authorities will be quicker this time in implementing internal movement controls at even the slightest threat of a possible community transmission. For instance, authorities in Australia’s Brisbane implemented a lockdown on 8-11 January with mandatory facemask rules and gathering restrictions as precautionary measures, after a hotel quarantine worker who was infected with the UK strain travelled to several parts of the city for five days before she began experiencing symptoms. Mass testing was also conducted despite having no local transmission of COVID-19 cases.

Similar partial lockdowns and inter-district movement controls were re-imposed in parts of Italy, US, Canada, India and several other countries in late 2020, to prevent a further spread of COVID-19 during Christmas and New Year festivities, in light of the detection of the UK strain of COVID-19 in these countries. Countries are pushing on with their vaccination drives, even as they continue to test the vaccines’ efficacy on the new strains. Further mutations will continue to occur and governments around the world must be prepared to respond quickly to the evolving trends of this pandemic for the foreseeable future.

Ramya Dilipkumar is an Australia-based political and security risk analyst.

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