Updated 3.20pm, adds PN statement

Malta has recorded its first case of the South Africa variant of COVID-19, which scientists say spreads more easily and is more resistant to one of three approved vaccines. 

Only one case of the variant, known as 501.V2 or B.1.351, has been detected during gene sequencing tests that have been increased in recent weeks.

However, the number of cases of the UK variant, which is also more transmissible, has increased to 49, Health Minister Chris Fearne told a news conference on Tuesday.

Viruses normally mutate in order to spread and thrive and most changes are not a cause for concern. But scientists have highlighted the UK and South Africa variants as being more infectious and more resistant to the vaccines currently on offer. 

Fearne said that genetic sequencing used to keep track of these variants has been stepped up to increase monitoring, and that all the positive cases are currently in isolation.

He did not provide any further details about how the South Africa strain arrived in the country.

Vaccine effectiveness

In South Africa, the emergence of the mutation prompted the country to halt its rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine, saying it had "disappointing" results against the variant and offered "minimal protection".

However early results from the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccines showed they protected against the variant.   

As for the R-factor, also known as the rate of transmission, which as of three weeks ago stood at about 1 - 1.5, the minister said that it has remained roughly the same due to the fact that the toll of daily cases has remained consistent.

“Given that there were about 100 to 150 cases per day, the R-factor has remained largely unchanged,” Fearne said.

When asked whether Malta plans on adopting rapid-testing for nightclubs and festivals as a way of reopening closed sectors, Fearne argued that Malta’s strategy remains focused on ensuring access to medical assistance can be given to everyone.

“Whilst rapid-testing helps us identify cases and keep them in check, we are still relying on PCR tests as a final confirmation,” the minister stated.

“We also issued a directive last week to make sure that private clinics and pharmacies carrying out rapid-testing are now obliged to report positive cases immediately to the office of the superintendent of health,” Fearne added.

When asked about whether the legal notice that ordered bars to close down their doors towards the end of the month will be extended, Fearne stated that a decision will be taken towards the end of the month.

“We will analyse relevant data as it comes out closer to the date and decide accordingly,” Fearne stated.

PN calls for wider monitoring at airport, ports

In a reaction, the Nationalist Party's health spokesman Stephen Spiteri urged the government to implement wider monitoring at the airport and in ports to avoid the importation of the virus as much as possible.

He said that since the variant spread more easily and was more contagious, wider screening and more efficient contact tracing was needed.

Spiteri called on the authorities to speed up the vaccination programme for important aims to be reached, including reducing COVID-19 deaths.

More responsibility was needed when it came to measures and their enforcement for the spread not to be a threat to public health, he said.

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