Georgian medical authorities have confirmed the presence of a new, more infectious strain of COVID-19, the first case to be identified in the Caucasus.
The new strain, labelled B.1.1.7, was first discovered in the UK in December.
Confirming the news on Monday, the Deputy Head of the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Paata Imnadze, said that the carrier was a man over the age of 50. While being scant on details, Imnadze said the man was in self-isolation, indicating his condition was not serious.
Imnadze claimed they had tracked everyone the man had come into contact with, including one who had already left the country. He did not specify if the authorities knew who had brought the new strain to Georgia.
Amiran Gamkrelidze, Imnadze’s boss, confirmed several days before New Year’s Eve that they were testing ‘several suspicious cases’ through genome sequencing, adding that the new strain was ‘more easily transmissible’, especially among young people.
On 21 December, four days before Gamreklidze’s comments, Georgia introduced two weeks of mandatory quarantine for those coming from the UK.
On 5 January, Georgia confirmed 2,316 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total number of confirmed to over 232,000. Of these, 223,000 have recovered, and 2,646 people have died.
The new strain was first confirmed on 14 December by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock. On Monday evening, facing rising case numbers, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that England would enter a nationwide lockdown at midnight, following similar decisions by the rest of the UK.
The new strain has so far been detected in at least 38 countries, including the US, China, and much of Europe.
Besides the strain confirmed in the UK, another more aggressive variant of COVID-19 was confirmed in South Africa last month.
Bad news as vaccines roll out?
Fears have been raised that the new strain could be bad news, as genome sequencing, which studies DNA mutation, is more expensive than the PCR-based testing for the virus itself. This could mean that cases of the new strain are not identified as such.
As governments across the globe scramble to launch mass inoculation campaigns in the coming months, the new variant could also potentially prove resistant to the vaccines already developed, or the vaccines may need modification.
However, many leading scientific establishments dealing with the virus have said the new strain is unlikely to prove resistant to the vaccines already being rolled out, developed by Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna, and Pfizer-BioNTech.
It is not yet clear which vaccine or vaccines Georgian expects to get.
According to the NCDC, Georgian authorities will be able to choose from a list of WHO-approved vaccines that they expect to get in Spring from the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX), a global immunisation platform. Georgia has ordered doses for 700,000 people from COVAX.
The NCDC’s Amiran Gamkrelidze said in late December that direct negotiations with individual vaccine manufacturers would also be needed to reach their goal of vaccinating ‘50%–60%’ of the population.
The NCDC has recently warned of consequences to the relaxation of lockdown measures to allow shopping from 24 December to 2 January. Georgia entered a new lockdown, including a complete shutdown of public transport and 21:00 curfew, in late November due to an unprecedented uptick in COVID-19 numbers.
The curfew, which was lifted temporarily on New Year’s Eve, will again be lifted on Orthodox Christmas Eve on the night of 6–7 January.