KUALA LUMPUR, April 1 — The Ministry of Health (MOH) said it has identified the South African coronavirus variant, believed to be more contagious, in nine locally transmitted Covid-19 cases in Selangor.
Health director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said four local cases infected by the B.1.351 variant were first detected last month, closely linked to the Jalan Lima cluster that was closed last Monday with 57 total cases. Two of the patients infected with the South African variant, from the cluster, worked at a company based at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA).
One was from the Kebun Baru cluster that first originated last December 24 in Kuala Langat, while the other was a family member who lived in the same household as a positive Covid-19 case.
Further genomic testing using samples from the Kuala Langat and Sepang districts in Selangor yielded five more cases infected with the South African variant. Four of them were from the Kebun Baru cluster and one from the Jalan Lima cluster.
The Kebun Baru cluster, said the Health DG, was still active and has infected 1,111 people as of March 31. It is expected to be closed on April 25, four months after it was first detected.
Dr Noor Hisham said that the South African variant found in the local Covid-19 cases in Malaysia did not have the H69_V70del mutation that was found in the UK B.1.1.7 variant.
“Genomic analysis showed the probability that the infection originated from positive Covid-19 cases involving workers at a company based in KLIA near Sepang, followed by transmission to local residents in Kuala Langat,” he said in a statement.
“As of now, phylogenetic analysis and geographical associations show the likelihood that those cases came from the same source of infection.”
Phylogenetic analysis studies the evolutionary development of a group of organisms.
According to the Health DG, the B.1.351 variant discovered in Malaysia had various mutations of the coronavirus’ signature spike protein, the part that gets the virus into human cells, including L18F, D80A, D614G, D215G, A701V, K417N, E484K, N501Y and L241_A243del.
BBC reported that the N501Y mutation of the South African variant appeared to make the virus more easy to spread. The E484K mutation, on the other hand, could help the virus evade one’s immune system and may affect the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines. There is no evidence yet that the South African variant causes more serious disease.
Dr Noor Hisham said the Kuala Langat and the Sepang district health offices, as well as the Institute for Medical Research, would continue with genomic analysis to monitor the South African variant or any other strains.
From early January this year until March, MOH has obtained 117 complete genomic analyses of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, to monitor for Covid-19 variants.
Media reports earlier today quoted Pfizer and BioNTech as saying that trials suggested their Covid-19 vaccine was effective against the South African variant. NBC reported that part of Pfizer-BioNTech’s Phase 3 trial took place in South Africa where the B.1.351 variant first emerged and found six cases with this strain, but none of them had taken the vaccine, yielding a 100 per cent efficacy rate. Malaysia has predominantly vaccinated almost 500,000 frontline workers with the Pfizer-BioNTech shot.