The highly-infectious coronavirus variant that originated in the UK now accounts for almost 60 - 61 per cent of all new COVID-19 cases in Malta, according to Prime Minister Robert Abela.

It marks a huge jump in the prevalence of the more contagious strain, which now officially dominates and which health authorities say is behind record-smashing numbers of daily virus cases.

The spread of the variant, known as B.1.1.7, put added pressure on the authorities to announce stricter measures including shutting down schools and non-essential services until April 11. 

Up until the end of February, the rate of the UK variant stood at just eight per cent of all cases, though the authorities had warned this was expected to rise significantly. 

Announcing the spike in prevalance of the variant during a news conference, health minister Chris Fearne said: “The numbers reflect the variant. But just because we have an explanation, that doesn’t mean we relax.”

Superintendent of Public Health Charmaine Gauci put the figure at 61 per cent of new cases and said authorities now had "real-time information" on the variant. 

Previously, genome sequencing tests which establish if a case is of the variant or not were carried out once a week.

Only one case of the South Africa variant has been announced.

In comments to Times of Malta on Wednesday, as an alarming 510 new cases were detected overnight, epidemiologist Neville Calleja said the presence of the UK variant had increased.

“This is not the highest rate in Europe but it’s still high and worrying. One has to also keep in mind that more infectious variants tend to take over and that is why there is such a dramatic increase in spread,” he said.

How does the UK variant differ?

On the impact of the variants, Calleja said the mode of spread and the survival of the virus on surfaces remain unchanged.  So far, the variant’s symptoms have also been the same as those reported earlier on in the pandemic. 

According to Calleja, the variant is more infectious because it attaches itself differently to the body’s cells than the original version of the virus. The epidemiologist said health authorities all over the world have yet to establish whether hospitalisation is impacted by the variants as literature is still “limited”. 

There is, however, one worrying change that could have a devastating effect on the community - the impact of the variant on children. 

With the original strain, minors were at less risk than adults because they were less likely to get infected. Now, according to Calleja, children are at the same risk of getting the virus as adults.

According to public health chief Charmaine Gauci, around 12 per cent of active cases are children with over 300 currently infected. 

“We’re in a race against time right now. The vaccine seems to be working well because we’ve seen a significant drop in cases among the elderly,” Calleja said. 

“A close look at the numbers shows the infections in those over 80 went down when they took the first dose and dropped even lower with the second dose,” Calleja said. 

Meanwhile, though acknowledging the number of daily new cases detected is worrying, he said testing rates need to be kept in mind, pointing out Malta has consistently tested thousands of people daily. 

The positivity rate – the rate of positive cases from the number of tests – has hovered around the seven per cent mark, he said, which is still lower than what was detected in other countries when they were dealing with spikes in the cases. 

On Wednesday, over 11 per cent of those tested were found to be positive for the virus. 

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