Health authorities will have a better idea of whether new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 are spreading across Malta by the end of this week. 

The UK and South Africa have recently detected variants of COVID-19, both of which have been found to be more contagious, spreading much quicker and resulting in greater spikes in numbers.

So far in Malta, three cases of the UK variant have been detected. But this could all change in the coming days as further results from gene sequencing tests are expected by the end of the week, virologist Chris Barbara told Times of Malta.

The tests will provide authorities with data about which virus variants have been detected locally, and how many cases of each have been found.  

Barbara, who heads Mater Dei Hospital’s pathology department, overseeing the bulk of COVID-19 testing, said testing takes at least a week because there are at least two new variants – the one detected in the UK and that in South Africa.

“Our labs are carrying out whole genome sequencing tests because we cannot target just one variant as we know there are more, so the process takes longer,” he said.

Any positive tests linked to travel from the UK are checked for the variant, especially as the number of cases there continue to spike.

But Barbara has been busy looking for the variant elsewhere too.

He told Times of Malta the labs are randomly testing positive results coming from hospital admissions and the community.

The public health authorities also flag large clusters since the variants are known to spread quicker.

“The public health team members pass on cases where they suspect there could be cases of the variants. But it is also important to carry out random tests. In fact, that is how we traced the first case of the variant,” he said.

Asked what to expect once the tests are completed, Barbara said it was impossible to say since the process could not be stopped and evaluated mid-way.

In a risk assessment on the variants published recently, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control noted that sequencing workflow turnaround times “vary”. “They can be as short as two to three days but other factors, such as transportation of samples to a reference laboratory, sequencing capacity limitations and data analysis time can heavily influence the actual turnaround time,” it said.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Chris Fearne said it remained to be seen whether the recent spike in new COVID-19 cases is a result of the spread of the variant in the community or whether it is the result of the Christmas festivities.

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