The contagious new COVID-19 mutation that was first detected in the U.K. has been found across Asia and could spread further in the world’s most populous region.
Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia have reported the presence of the new strain in the two weeks since British officials on Dec. 14 blamed it for causing a surge in cases. And India said Saturday that it was unable to trace 279 recent travelers from the U.K. who could be carrying the variant.
British health authorities have said the variant is more contagious than previous strains of the coronavirus, although there’s no evidence that it is deadlier or resistant to vaccines currently under development.
Viruses mutate naturally. Scientists have found at least 24 known mutations of the COVID-19 since it emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
New strains of a virus don’t always behave differently. The new U.K. virus variant, however, has a genetic mutation in the spike protein that makes it more contagious than other mutants.
Australia was the first country in the Asia Pacific to confirm the presence of the new variant, after two cases were found on Monday last week.
In Southeast Asia, Singapore confirmed a case of the new strain on Thursday after it began conducting viral genomic sequencing for visitors who had recently come back from Europe and tested positive for COVID-19. Out of 31 people who went to the city-state from Europe between Nov. 17 and Dec. 17, one person was discovered to have the new variant.
In East Asia, three South Korean nationals returning from the U.K. tested positive for the new variant on Monday. Previously, Japan on Friday confirmed five cases of the new strain among people who had returned from the U.K. And Hong Kong said on Wednesday two students who recently returned from the U.K. tested positive for the new variant.
India has reported multiple instances of citizens coming from the U.K. testing positive for COVID-19, though authorities have yet to confirm whether any were infected by the mutant strain. In the southern Indian state of Telangana, 279 people who recently returned from the U.K. are untraceable, the authorities said.
More than 50 countries have issued restrictions on traveling from the U.K. to contain the spread of the new strain.
Globally, the World Health Organization has reported more than 79 million confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, including 22 million active cases and 1 million deaths.