COVID-19: Genomic sequencing finds 17 of NZ's recent cases are the mutated UK, South African variants

A stock image of a scientist comparing two different strains of the coronavirus.
A stock image of a scientist comparing two different strains of the coronavirus. Photo credit: Getty

Seventeen of New Zealand's imported COVID-19 cases have been identified as the two more contagious variants of the virus, the Ministry of Health announced on Thursday.

Since January 6, genomic sequencing has identified 11 imported cases of B.1.1.7, the variant of COVID-19 first discovered in the United Kingdom. Six additional samples have been identified as B., the mutated strain first detected in South Africa.

A number of other previously identified strains have also been detected by whole genome sequencing, the ministry said.

The lineages are all consistent with overseas exposure, the ministry confirmed, reiterating that the 17 infections were detected due to routine testing in managed isolation facilities.

New Zealand has now recorded 29 cases of B.1.1.7, the mutated strain currently ravaging the United Kingdom, and seven infections of B., the South Africa variant. 

"We expect we will continue to see both the UK variant and South Africa variant in positive cases in our managed isolation facilities here in New Zealand, as these forms of the virus become increasingly common around the world," the Ministry of Health said in Thursday's statement.

"All positive COVID-19 tests in New Zealand are sent to ESR to attempt whole genome sequencing as part of ongoing surveillance.

"This surveillance allows us to identify and better understand these variants in order to inform and refine our overall elimination strategy, in particular optimising our current stringent border processes including testing and regularly reviewing infection prevention procedures."

The healthcare department noted that further steps have been recently taken to strengthen New Zealand's border processes, including an additional test for returnees on arrival or day one of their stay in managed isolation. Pre-departure testing is now also required for all passengers planning to enter New Zealand, with the exception of travellers returning from Australia, Antarctica and the majority of the Pacific Islands.

On Wednesday, the Ministry of Health confirmed that six new imported cases had been detected in managed isolation facilities over the previous two days, including one who tested positive more than three weeks after arriving in the country. The person has been at the Jet Park Hotel, Auckland's quarantine facility, since the new year.

The ministry's next update is scheduled for 1pm on Friday, January 22.