Coronavirus: 'Very contagious' South Africa variant now in New Zealand

A highly-infectious new strain of COVID-19 causing a coffin shortage in South Africa has now made its way to New Zealand shores.

The Ministry of Health reported its first case of the 501Y.V2 variant at our border on Sunday.

Disease modeller Shaun Hendy warns that we could go back into lockdown if the new variants get out into the community.

"With the old strain if you went on to infect two people, now with this new strain you might infect three."

Both the South African and the UK variants have been identified as between 50 and 70 percent more contagious than the strain that previously circulated New Zealand. 

"It could spread considerably faster. That increase in transmissibility just means more people are going to get infected so we would see an increase in case numbers much more rapidly than we did, say, in August," Hendy says.

Thirty-one new cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed at the border in the past three days.

Genome sequencing has identified 19 cases of the highly contagious UK variant at the border since December 13. 

Epidemiologist Michael Baker says the prospect of an outbreak of either of these strains is worrying.

"Very contagious, straight to level 3/4."

He says in order to keep New Zealand safe, we may need to tighten our border controls even further.