SYDNEY (Reuters) – Authorities in Australia stepped up contact tracing and called for people in the city of Melbourne to come forward for coronavirus testing on Thursday as the number of infections in a cluster linked to a quarantine hotel rose to 11.
More than 22,500 tests were done in the previous 24 hours in Australia’s second most populous city and authorities scrambled to contain the spread of a highly transmissible variant of the virus from workers at a Holiday Inn.
Three new cases were reported on Thursday, a manager at the hotel and the spouses of two members of staff, Victoria state authorities said.
All 11 cases in the cluster were confirmed to have the variant of the virus that emerged in Britain.
“Clearly, it is a very live outbreak,” Victoria’s COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar told a televised news conference.
“We are at this stage reassured by the fact that all of these positives are emerging within the primary close contact field. We have a lot more work to do today, tonight and over the coming days.”
British scientists have said the UK variant of the virus that is behind a surge in infections there may be not only more transmissible, but also more lethal – with a mortality risk around 30% higher than other variants.
The outbreak in Melbourne, where the Australia Open tennis tournament is underway, has raised fears of a new wave of infections in the state hardest hit by COVID-19.
Victoria had more than 20,000 cases last year and more than 800 deaths, forcing authorities to impose a strict lockdown for more than 100 days, the most severe action taken anywhere in Australia.
The latest outbreak was likely sparked by a medical device known as a nebuliser being used by a COVID-positive guest at the hotel, authorities said.
Most of Australia’s eight states and territories closed internal borders in 2020 for the first time in a century to keep the virus out, but they have slowly reopened to domestic visitors as they go for long stretches without new infections outside hotel quarantine.
But South Australia, which neighbours Victoria, closed its border again this week because of the Melbourne hotel cluster.
Australia has been among the world’s most successful countries in handling the novel coronavirus, largely because of decisive lockdowns and borders sealed to all but a trickle of travellers, with some 22,000 cases and 909 deaths.
But its quarantine hotels, where all international arrivals spend two weeks, have proved to be a weak link in its defences with the cluster in Melbourne the latest to emerge from one.
Australia’s other states, including New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia reported no new local cases on Thursday.
Also on Thursday, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that an Australian scientist in a World Health Organisation (WHO) team investigating the origin of the coronavirus, said he believed it emerged in China, even though official WHO findings are inconclusive.
“I think the evidence for it starting elsewhere in the world is actually very limited. There is some evidence but it’s not really very good,” said Professor Dominic Dwyer, a microbiologist and infectious diseases expert with NSW Health.
(Graphic: Global COVID tracker – https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/)
(Reporting by Swati Pandey and Byron Kaye; Editing by Michael Perry, Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)