Public health officials are determined to keep the South African variant of Covid-19 out. Reports from the UK say researchers and scientists working with the AstraZeneca vaccine are confident of having a fix available in the Autumn after the vaccine, favoured by Thailand, was suspended by South African authorities last week when shown to be only 10% effective against the new strain. However, experts say it still appears to be effective at preventing acute illness and hospitalisation from the disease. 

Thailand’s public health officials are scrambling to react to any potential problems posed by the more infectious South African strain of the Covid-19 virus known as ‘B1351’ which has the potential to disrupt the country’s vaccination plans as it gets ready to fly in its first load of vaccines from China next week on the 24th February. With three travellers currently being treated in quarantine by doctors for the strain, there is now a proposal to extend quarantine for African travellers to twenty-one days as test and genetic sequencing capability is also being ramped up.

Department of Disease Control boss, Dr Opas Karnkawinpong, has assured the public that the more infectious ‘B1351’ strain of the Covid-19 virus from South Africa will not enter Thailand through the state quarantine system as doctors currently treat three patients with the strain detected in the last few weeks.

The Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration is thought to be actively considering a plan to extend the period of quarantine for travellers from Africa after it was confirmed there have been three cases detected in state quarantine over the last week.

‘We might need to increase the mandatory quarantine for returnees from Africa to 21 days,’ said spokesperson Apisamai Srisangson this week as concern about this more contagious strain grows.

41-year-old dealer treated for a severe respiratory infection after testing positive in quarantine

The first case treated, a 41-year old Thai gemstone dealer who had been in Tanzania for two months and who travelled back to Thailand via Ethiopia arriving in the kingdom on January 29th, has provoked searching questions within the top government unit and the Department of Disease Control at the Ministry of Public Health led by Dr Opas.

The infected man who developed a severe respiratory infection is asthmatic, overweight and suffers from a congenital condition. He was treated with the drug Remdesivir and is reported to be making a recovery.

Delay in diagnosing the Covid-19 strain

While he tested positive for Covid-19 on February 3rd, it was not until February 12th that doctors diagnosed the South African strain of the virus known to be extremely infectious and significantly for Thailand, less treatable by the current version of the AstraZeneca vaccine which is the proposed mainstay of the kingdom’s vaccination campaign with 61 million doses on order from the UK Swedish firm. 

Last week, authorities in Pretoria, South Africa ordered the suspension of vaccinations using the AstraZeneca jab after it was shown to be only 10% effective in combating the new virus strain named by scientists as ‘B1351’.

Scientists confident of adapted AstraZeneca jab by Autumn as a top doctor in Thailand orders a search for the South African variant in swabs

Scientists who developed the jab for AstraZeneca at Oxford University, are confidently working on adapting the vaccine to fight the new strain but it is expected to be Autumn before this will be ready for delivery.

In the meantime, experts point out that the vaccine still appears to be capable of preventing acute cases of the virus infection which require hospitalisation.

Meanwhile, Dr Prasit Watanapa of the Faculty of Medicine, Siriraj Hospital, Mahidol University who has strongly endorsed the need for a speedy rollout of a vaccine programme in Thailand and the efficacy of such an approach, has reached out to hospitals nationwide to recheck swabs to see if the South African variant may already have been detected within the kingdom.

Strain is known since October last year

The strain has been known about since October last year and has already spread to 30 countries.

The current strain of the infection in Thailand, the G strain, is also quite infectious as is the ‘Kent’ strain from the United Kingdom which doctors are now treating in the state quarantine system with 9 cases of this variant among travellers.

Department of Disease Control orders quicker testing and genetic sequencing of all detected cases 

In response to the latest development, the Department of Disease Control has ordered quicker testing of arrivals and availability of tests as well as genetic sequencing as the ongoing medical management of incoming passengers continues.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s first Covid-19 vaccines will be flown in by Thai Airways on February 24th from China. It will be the first batch of the Sinovac vaccine with 2 million doses to be administered and expected to arrive in the kingdom before the end of April.

Move to allow vaccinated passengers enter without quarantine resisted for now by health officials

Last week, Dr Opas of the Department of Disease Control ruled out any swift decision on allowing vaccinated visitors entry to the country on vaccine passports without quarantine despite intense canvassing of the government by business and foreign tourism interests at this time.

Top Thai official – vaccine passports a matter for the WHO

However, the hawkish public health official, tasked with the protection of the kingdom against the disease, has not ruled out the prospect under the auspices of the World Health Organisation.

Confident that South African strain will not enter through state quarantine facilities to spread

In relation to the South African variant of the disease, he was also quite optimistic it is a threat under control as regards state quarantine facilities.

‘I assure you that the South African species, found in state quarantine, hasn’t spread to any community’ he said.

Research last week from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may provide some more positive news but also highlights the complexity of this challenge.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory offers some hope for an eventual end to quarantine with guidance on vaccinated people

Scientists in the United States are suggesting that a person who has taken two doses or a full course of an approved vaccine should not be subject to 14-day quarantine provided they are asymptomatic for the disease sometime after the second dose has been administered.

It is thought by US scientists that asymptomatic carriers of Covid-19 are less likely to transmit it.

They are also suggesting that the person should have received the last dose within 3 months.

‘Individual and societal benefits of avoiding unnecessary quarantine may outweigh the potential but unknown risk of transmission,’ the body concluded.

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Further reading:

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