Why is the virus that causes COVID-19 mutating? Should we be concerned about the more contagious variants?
Health officials in Germany are investigating a new strain of coronavirus that was discovered in the southern state of Bavaria.
The development comes amid mounting global concern over emergent virus variants, at least two of which – one first found in the United Kingdom and another recorded initially in South Africa – are hastening the spread of the pandemic.
The new variant was detected in 35 people at a hospital in the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen on Monday after 73 patients and staff members at the Bavarian facility tested positive for COVID-19.
Hospital authorities confirmed the mutation was different from the two highly infectious mutations causing concern.
Deputy medical director Clemens Stockklausner told reporters it was not yet clear whether the new strain in Germany was any more deadly or infectious.
“We cannot say at all at the moment whether this [mutation] has any clinical relevance,” he said. “We have to wait for the complete sequencing.”
Samples of the variant have been sent to Charite Hospital in the capital, Berlin, for further examination, German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reported.
German health minister Jens Spahn said on Monday new measures were needed to slow the spread of new, more infectious strains, including intensified gene sequencing of virus samples.
Spahn told reporters in Berlin he was ordering laboratories to sequence the genome of 5 percent of positive samples they collect when screening for the coronavirus, to check if they match the strains first identified in the UK and South Africa, or if new variants were emerging in Germany.
He also said intensified testing of cross-border commuters should be introduced to help prevent new strains entering Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the nation’s 16 state premiers are due to meet on Tuesday to decide on new measures designed to contain the pandemic, which has devastated Europe’s largest economy. They are expected to extend the country’s ongoing coronavirus lockdown.
The country has closed schools, non-essential shops, bars, restaurants, and leisure and cultural facilities under the lockdown, which has been incrementally tightened since early November. The measures also ban people from meeting with more than one other person from another household.
Amid the restrictions, the rate of coronavirus infections has slowed in recent days and the occupancy of intensive care beds by COVID-19 patients has declined by 10-15 percent, according to Spahn.
“The (infection) numbers seem to be decreasing, which is good, but we are still a long way from where we want to be,” he told German broadcaster ARD on Monday.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases nationwide rose by 7,141 on Monday to 2.04 million, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases.
That was down by more than 5,000 from a week earlier, but daily numbers from the states of Bavaria and Rhineland-Palatinate were incomplete, the RKI said.
The reported death toll meanwhile rose by 214 to 46,633.