New Zealand’s first case of coronavirus in the community in months has been identified as the South African variant, health minister Chris Hipkins said on Monday, adding that the 56-year-old woman probably caught it from another returning traveller just before leaving quarantine.
The woman, who recently returned from Europe, tested positive on Saturday, 10 days after she completed her compulsory two weeks in isolation at a hotel in the city of Auckland.
The case represents the first time the virus has breached a quarantine facility in more than two months, after New Zealand eliminated community spread of the virus. The Pacific nation has been widely praised for its handling of the pandemic, with just 25 deaths from 1,927 confirmed virus cases in a population of five million.
“We can confirm that the strain of infection is the South African variant and the source of infection is highly likely to be a fellow returnee during the person’s stay at the Pullman hotel,” Hipkins told reporters in the capital, Wellington.
Genome testing indicates the woman may have contracted the virus from a person on the same floor of the hotel who tested positive two days before she left quarantine, he said.
“The two people occupied rooms in close proximity to each other on the same floor of the Pullman hotel and I’m advised by officials that they’re confident that the infection was a direct one and that there’s no other missing link in between those two people,” Hipkins added, urging travellers who stayed at the same hotel to “self-isolate” immediately.
The 56-year-old toured around the Northland region near Auckland after her release from quarantine and showed symptoms for several days before being tested.
Two people close to her, including her husband, have since returned negative tests and New Zealand’s Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said they probably avoided contracting the illness because of the type of infection.
“She didn’t talk about respiratory symptoms, it was more muscle aches, so she may not have been sharing or spreading the virus much,” he said.
“I don’t think that’s peculiar to this variant, it’s just how it was expressed in this woman.”
The World Health Organization has said there is no clear evidence the South African variant leads to more severe disease or a higher death rate.