Vietnam has often been held up as a leading example in containing the coronavirus outbreak thanks to an aggressive strategy of early screening of passengers at airports and a strict quarantine and monitoring programme.
It was able to better manage the crisis than its larger neighbours despite sharing a long border with China, where the outbreak was first reported.
The Communist nation has recorded 7,572 cases and just 48 deaths since January last year, remarkably lower than neighbour Malaysia which has accounted for as many cases in a single day recently.
However, luck might be running out for Vietnam as a troubling new variant has led to the country recording half of its caseload in the past one month.
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So, what is this new variant detected in Vietnam?
Earlier this week, the Vietnam government said it has detected a new mutation of the novel coronavirus which is a combination of the variants found in India and the United Kingdom. Vietnam’s Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long described the latest mutation as “very dangerous”.
Viruses mutate all the time and most variants are inconsequential, but some can make a virus more contagious. Since Covid-19 was first identified in January 2020, thousands of mutations have been detected.
“Vietnam has uncovered a new Covid-19 variant combining characteristics of the two existing variants first found in India and the UK,” Nguyen had told a government meeting earlier this week.
The Southeast Asian country had previously detected seven virus variants: B.1.222, B.1.619, D614G, B.1.1.7 — known as the UK variant, B.1.351, A.23.1 and B.1.617.2 found in India.
According to the Vietnam government, lab cultures show that the strain can replicate itself very quickly and spreads rapidly through the air. It is also more easily transmissible than the ones previously discovered. “The characteristic of this strain is that it spreads quickly in the air. The concentration of virus in the throat fluid increases rapidly and spreads very strongly to the surrounding environment,” the health minister said.
The World Health Organization, however, has said that its Virus Evolution Working Group was working with officials in Vietnam to confirm the possible new coronavirus variant after four people were confirmed to be infected with this suspected new strain.
The genetic code of the virus hasn’t been made public by the Vietnam government yet.
Who is at risk from this new strain?
The variant of Covid-19 first identified in India last October — called B.1.617.2 — is more transmissible than the UK/Kent variant —also known as B.1.1.7 — according to experts.
Research suggests that vaccines, such as the Pfizer and Oxford AstraZeneca jabs, are highly effective against B.1.617.2, now called Delta by WHO, after two doses, but protection from one dose appears to be reduced.
However, there is no evidence that any mutations of the coronavirus cause much more serious illness for the vast majority of people.
As with the original version, the risk remains highest for people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions. But a virus being more infectious and equally dangerous will in itself lead to more deaths in an unvaccinated population.
Is it a variant of concern?
The World Health Organisation has stated that it has not yet made an assessment of the new strain of coronavirus found in Vietnam. “From the WHO’s current understanding, the variant detected in Vietnam was the B.1.617.2 variant, more commonly known as the Indian variant, possibly with an additional mutation,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead for COVID-19, has said.
There are thousands of different variants of Covid circulating across the world. Viruses mutate all the time and most changes are inconsequential. Some even harm the virus. But others can make the disease more infectious or threatening. Those which are most potentially concerning are called “variants of concern” and kept under the closest watch by health officials.
Currently, the ones which are classified under the aforesaid category include:
Alpha: The UK or Kent variant (also known as B.1.1.7) that is prevalent in Britain — with more than 200,000 cases identified — and has spread to more than 50 countries and appears to be mutating again.
Beta: The South Africa variant (B.1.351) has been identified in at least 20 other countries, including the UK.
Gamma: The Brazil variant (P.1) has spread to more than 10 other countries.
Delta: The variant was first detected in India (B.1.617.2) of which more than 3,000 cases have been seen across the UK.
Is the new Vietnam variant more dangerous than the others?
There is no evidence that any of them cause more serious illness for a vast majority of people. As with the original version, the risk remains highest for people who are elderly or have significant underlying health conditions.
The India, UK, South Africa and Brazil variants have all undergone changes to their spike protein — the part of the virus which attaches to human cells.
The variant found in India has some potentially important ones (such as L452R) that might make it spread more easily. However, there is no evidence to indicate it causes more severe disease or might make current vaccines less effective.
What is the government doing to arrest the spread?
As cases continue to surge, the Vietnam government is scrambling its resources to contain and combat the spread of the new variant. Health officials believe it has already spread across the country and is partly to blame for the surge in cases. The current outbreak has now spread to at least 30 of Vietnam’s municipalities and provinces.
The government has also been very slow when it comes to procuring vaccines, maybe because of its past success in containing the virus. With a population of about 97 million people, Vietnam has administered just over one million doses so far, one of the lowest rates in the world.
In recent weeks, officials have redoubled their efforts to procure vaccines and have called on businesses, organisations and the public to contribute ideas and money to speed up the process of importing them. The country has so far received 2.9 million doses and aims to secure 150 million this year.
However, the government has started mass testing of risk groups and introduced new social distancing norms with hopes to curb the spread. Shops and restaurants have been closed, and religious activities have also been suspended.