Japan identifies new virus variant as global cases tops 90 million

(CBC.CA) – A new coronavirus variant has been detected in four travellers from Brazil’s Amazonas state, Japan’s Health Ministry said on Sunday, the latest new mutation of the virus discovered.

A ministry official said studies were underway into the efficacy of vaccines against the new variant, which differs from highly infectious variants first found in Britain and South Africa that have driven a surge in cases.

“At the moment, there is no proof showing the new variant found in those from Brazil is high in infectiousness,” Dr. Takaji Wakita, head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, told a Health Ministry briefing.

Still, Brazil’s Health Ministry said it has been notified by Japan’s authorities that the new variant has 12 mutations, and one of them has already been identified also in the variants found in the United Kingdom and in South Africa. “It implies in a potential higher virus infectiousness,” it said.

Of the four travellers who arrived at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport on Jan. 2, a man in his 40s had a problem breathing, a woman in her 30s had a headache and sore throat and a man in his teens had a fever, while a woman in her teens showed no symptoms, the ministry said, adding all travellers are in quarantine at Tokyo’s airport.

Variants of the coronavirus first found in the U.K. and South Africa have been reported in Canada.

On Saturday, Canada’s chief public health officer said the country has so far identified 14 cases of the strain found in the U.K. and one case of the strain found in South Africa.

“Given the recent emergence of COVID-19 virus variants of concern, which appear to be associated with an increased risk of spread, [the Public Health Agency of Canada] has been working with provinces, territories and international partners to enhance monitoring for the presence of any virus variants in Canada,” Dr. Theresa Tam said.

What’s happening around the world

As of Sunday, more than 90 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, with more than 49.8 million of those considered recovered or resolved, according to Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 case tracking tool. The global death toll stood at more than 1.9 million.

In Europe, more than 40,000 people have now died of COVID-19 in Germany. The country initially managed to keep death numbers low in comparison to its European neighbours, but since October both new infections and deaths have been increasing steadily.

Germany entered a second hard lockdown last month, which was recently extended until the end of January. Schools and most stores are closed, hospitals in the country are on edge and some morgues don’t have enough space to cool the relentless flow of incoming bodies.

In Asia, more than 360 people have tested positive in a growing coronavirus outbreak south of Beijing in neighbouring Hebei province. China’s National Health Commission reported Sunday that 69 new cases had been confirmed, including 46 in Hebei.

The outbreak has raised particular concern because of Hebei’s proximity to the nation’s capital. Travel between the two has been restricted, with workers from Hebei having to show proof of employment in Beijing to enter.

Africa surpassed three million confirmed COVID-19 cases on Sunday, including more than 72,000 deaths, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

South Africa accounts for more than a third of the continent’s total with more than 1.2 million reported cases, including more than 32,000 deaths. Many hospitals are reaching capacity as the country battles a resurgence of the disease, driven by a variant of the virus that is more contagious and spreading quickly.

In the Americas, the U.S. state of Arizona reported more than 11,000 new cases for the third consecutive day, plus 105 more deaths.

As of Saturday, Arizona had the second-highest coronavirus case rate and death rate per capita nationally in the last seven days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

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