1 April 2021
The Health Ministry has detected nine cases of a new Covid-19 variant in Malaysia, the B.1.351 which was first discovered in South Africa late last year.
Health director-general Tan Sri Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah said the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) has identified and confirmed the existence of this variant among local Covid-19 positive cases.
He said genome sequence analysis suggests that the infection could have originated from a Covid-19 positive patient who is an employee at a company located at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA), Sepang who then transmitted the virus to residents in Kuala Langat.
“This genomic surveillance strategy involves samples confirmed positive throughout January 2021 to March 31, 2021 obtained from positive cases from local clusters in Selangor, Putrajaya, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Melaka, Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan.
“The samples were also from positive cases with a travel history to other countries as well as from cases of death due to Covid-19.
“As of March 31, nine Covid-19 positive cases have been identified infected with the B.1.351 variant through local infection.
“To date, phylogenetic analysis as well as geographical correlations indicates the probability of such cases being from the same source of infection,” he said in a statement today.
The variant was first reported in December 2020 in two countries, namely the United Kingdom and South Africa. Since early 2021, it has also been reported in other countries including the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia and South Korea.
Scientists have reported that this variant appears to spread easier than the “wild type” original strains, and research indicates it could possibly evade some of the protections generated by therapeutics and vaccines.
Dr Noor Hisham said in Malaysia, the variant was first identified among four local cases in March 2021.
Preliminary investigation, he said found that all four cases were linked to a geographical location and closely related to the Jalan Lima cluster as shown in phylogenetic analysis.
“Two cases are believed to be from the Jalan Lima cluster who are employees at one of the companies based at KLIA.
“However, it is difficult to determine and confirm the mode of transmission or infection of variant B.1.351 to the workers involved. One case was from the Kebun Baru cluster and another was a family member of a Covid-19 positive patient living in the same house.”
He said following the initial discovery of the B.1.351 variant, more genome sequence tests were conducted using Covid-19 positive samples from geographical locations including the Kuala Langat and Sepang districts.
The results of the tests conducted unearthed five more cases from this locality that had been infected with the variant, he said.
“Four cases were from the Kebun Baru cluster and one case from the Jalan Lima cluster.”
He said the Jalan Lima cluster ended on March 29 where it had 57 cases in total and 447 individuals have been screened, while the Kebun Baru cluster is still active and is expected to end on April 25 (if there are no more cases).
As of March 31, the cluster had involved 1,111 cases in total (111 were still active and isolated for treatment or isolation) and 1,565 individuals had been screened, he said.
“The B.1.351 variant was found to have various ‘spike protein’ mutations, including L18F, D80A, D614G, D215G, A701V, K417N, E484K, N501Y and L241_A243del.
“However, this variant does not have the H69_V70del mutation as found in the UK B.1.1.7. variant.
“Genome sequence analysis also showed the probability of infection originating from a Covid-19 positive case involving an employee at one of the KLIA-based companies near the Sepang area followed by the transmission of the infection to local residents in the Kuala Langat district.”
He said the Kuala Langat District Health Office and the Sepang District Health Office as well as the IMR will continue to perform genome sequencing from clinical samples to monitor the presence of this variant as well as other variants.
From early January 2021 to the end of March 2021, a total of 117 full genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2 were obtained for various Covid-19 mutations, he said.
Meanwhile, he said in 2020, a total of 144 genome sequences have been uploaded in the GISAID database system and this action would continue to be actively implemented.
“The Health Ministry will continue to be vigilant and implement various public health measures to prevent the overspill of new variants into Malaysia.
“Any further developments on this matter will be communicated from time to time to the public.
“We hope all efforts to curb the spread of this new variant will help the country break the chain of Covid-19 infection in Malaysia.”
Dr Noor Hisham noted that ministry via IMR and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has to date analysed more than 261 full genome sequences of SARS-CoV-2 virus from clinical samples.
“This includes Covid-19 cases in Malaysia from the first wave to the third wave. This analysis focuses on monitoring all types of gene mutations, especially on protein displacement that plays an important role in the process of receptor recognition and cell membrane fusion process.
“Previously, IMR has detected several forms of SARS-CoV-2 virus mutation variants including D614G and A701V mutations.”