New Zealand authorities have said a new case of Covid-19 that emerged outside quarantine appeared to be the South African variant.
Health officials said on Monday that they believed the infected woman, aged 56, contracted the virus from an infected person on the same floor of the Pullman hotel in Auckland where they were both quarantining.
She had left the hotel isolation regime after producing two negative tests, as is standard, but then developed muscle aches and reported her symptoms to health workers in follow-up interviews.
While surface or airborne infection was still a possibility, person-to-person infection looked the most likely, said the director general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Thirty places of interest had been identified in Northland and Whangarei. The premises had been closed and workers asked to self-isolate.
The woman had travelled in Spain and the Netherlands and arrived in New Zealand from London around the turn of the year. Fifteen close contacts had been identified and their test results were expected on Monday. The woman’s husband and hairdresser both tested negative and the woman had few respiratory symptoms, which may have meant her infection spread less widely than usual.
Forty-six people staying at the Pullman hotel were asked to stay longer until the origin of the outbreak was identified. Nearly all of the 220 Pullman hotel staff had been tested.
Seventeen additional testing centres were set up in Auckland and Whangarei, with reports of long lines for tests on Monday.
Dr Bloomfield said many people lining up for tests had no symptoms and no contact with the infected woman, and he asked those people to go home to allow actual contacts to be tested.
Whole genome sequencing results for the woman have confirmed that she has contracted the South African variant of the disease, he said.
“There are limited epidemiological data available on the variant, making it harder to study. The preliminary concern of this variant is that the mutation affects the body’s immune response to it and its transmissibility.
“New forms, or variants, of the virus have become increasingly common around the world – and we have expected to see them here in New Zealand.”
“They are now global, they are not confined to specific countries”
Māori iwi have begun to ramp up health protections for Waitangi day, which draws tens of thousands of people to the Northland region in early February.
Chris Hipkins, the minister for Covid-19 response, said he felt confident Waitangi would go ahead.
“I have yet to see any evidence that Waitangi may be disrupted, and I feel more confident of that today than yesterday.”
On Sunday night the prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, answered questions live on Facebook regarding the latest community case, which came after two months of no community cases in New Zealand.
“This happens every time we have a Covid case and there’s a tendency to blame, and the message I want to share is the most important thing for us is that people when they’re unwell, continue to get tested. And people are less likely to do that if they feel they’ll get attacked,” Ardern said, after seeing abuse of the infected woman on social media and calls to close the borders entirely.
“We really need people not to pile in on anyone; it’s so, so important we just keep that kindness and we treat people the way we’d like to be treated.”
Ardern said it was not realistic to shut the borders completely, but New Zealand was one of the few countries in the world to close its border to non-New Zealanders.
“As a New Zealand citizen you have the right to return to New Zealand … so we can’t close off our borders,” Ardern said.
“If we were to close our border entirely we wouldn’t get imports, goods, medical supplies … all those things are still coming in.”
Hipkins said “fake news” and “entirely untrue” rumours had been circulating on social media that the country was headed for another full lockdown. Ardern reiterated this point, saying lockdown only happened when the source of an infection was unknown, whereas the source of the latest case had been identified.