Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s largest and most populous metropolis, plans to conduct a large-scale testing for the coronavirus and impose more stringent measures to deal with a worsening outbreak.
Starting today, residents are only allowed to leave home for necessary activities, and public gatherings of more than 10 people are banned for the next two weeks, according to a government announcement. The city, which is Vietnam’s commercial hub, has already shut down most non-essential businesses since last week. Strict social distance of at least six feet has also been implemented.
The city authority said on a statement that they are planning to test high-risk areas including the members of a Christian congregation in Go Vap, export processing zones, industrial parks and high-tech zones, as well as those who voted in the National Assembly and People’s Council last week. The city is mobilizing more testing centers to cater to a daily testing capacity of 100,000 samples, twice the current capacity of 50,000.
The government’s move follows the discovery of a new coronavirus variant which appears to be a hybrid of two highly transmissible strains.
"A new coronavirus variant with characteristics from the existing Indian and UK variants had been detected in Vietnam for the first time," Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long told a national news conference Saturday.
The World Health Organization said it is working with Vietnamese officials to confirm the possible new variant, after four people were confirmed to be infected.
‘Very dangerous’ airborne COVID variant
Vietnamese scientists that have examined the genetic makeup of the virus found that the new variant might spread more easily than the other versions. According to Minister Long, the variant spreads quickly by air and is “very dangerous”.
Viruses often develop small genetic changes as they reproduce, and new variants of the coronavirus have been seen almost since it was first detected in China in late 2019. The World Health Organization has listed four global "variants of concern" – the two first found in the UK and India, plus ones identified in South Africa and Brazil.
"We have not yet made an assessment of the virus variant reported in Vietnam. We expect that more variants will continue to be detected as the virus circulates and evolves and as sequencing capacities are enhanced worldwide," said WHO's technical lead for Covid-19 Maria Van Kerkhove in a statement.
"From what we understand, the variant they detected is the B.1.617.2 variant possibly with an additional mutation, however we will provide more information as soon as we receive it."
The new variant could be responsible for the recent surge of cases in the country, said the health minister.
Until recently, Vietnam had never reported more than 50 new cases in a single day, recorded less than 3,000 cases and only 35 deaths.
But since the fourth wave, the country’s worst to date, on April 27 that started in the northern region, the caseload has more than doubled. As of this writing, Vietnam now has 7,107 infections and 47 deaths. On May 25, the country recorded 447 cases, its highest daily tally since the pandemic began.
A church mission gone wrong
Ho Chi Minh City was relatively unaffected from the outbreak in April, recording only a couple of cases in most of May.
However, on May 26, new cases emerged, centered around the Revival Ekklesia Mission in Go Vap District. The city had already tallied at least 143 patients linked to the cluster.
Police has also launched on Sunday morning a criminal investigation into the religious mission, as preliminary inquiries determined that the group did not comply with COVID-19 preventive measures. The people who attended the church were gathered in a small, poorly ventilated space and were not wearing face masks.
While authorities have yet to identify the source of the infection, they warned that members have a very high risk of infection. Authorities have already collected samples from at least 50,000 people living around the area in Go Vap, and will continue to conduct contact tracing to assess the risk.
Ho Chi Minh City Center for Disease Control called on people who visited the church recently to proactively contact healthcare centers to report their conditions. People need to be vigilant and transparent in their health conditions to swiftly curb the outbreak, said HCMCDC.