Laboratories in Abu Dhabi are ready to detect the latest mutation of Covid-19 that is sweeping through the UK and has prompted another nationwide shutdown.
The B117 strain of SARS-CoV-2 is believed to have been circulating in Kent, southeast England since September and has now been found in more than 30 other countries.
Although it does not present any more severe symptoms than other variants of Covid-19, studies show it is up to 74 per cent more transmissible, particularly in children.
Scientists in the Emirates said regular polymerase chain reaction tests currently in use could detect the new variant, but were not able to differentiate between other strains of the virus.
"What we are doing in our lab will detect the presence of this mutated virus using existing PCR sampling," said Mohamed Rafi, laboratory manager at Bareen International Hospital in Mohamed bin Zayed City.
“We contacted the manufacturer of our reagent as they found that the new strain of Covid-19 seen in the UK can also be detected.
“As the form of testing we are using is qualitative, we can only determine either a positive or negative result, not if the person has been infected with the mutated form of the virus.
“But we will not miss the patient who is carrying the new strain, they will still record a positive test result. That is important.”
Bareen International Hospital operates under the umbrella of the NMC Healthcare group, which uses thousands of PCR test kits made by South Korean manufacturers, Seegene.
Last month, the company informed NMC all its testing kits would pick up signs of the new B117 variant of SARS-CoV-2 found in the UK.
The company’s assays are designed to detect individual multiple gene targets of SARS-CoV-2 simultaneously, reducing the chance of laboratories recording a false negative result in an infected person.
Of the thousands of viral mutations recorded since Covid-19 was first uncovered in Wuhan, China, few have proved to be significantly different to pose further medical concern.
Although the B117 strain does not yet appear to be any more dangerous, its high contagion rate is concerning healthcare professionals and epidemiologists.
“It is common for viruses to mutate,” said Dr Amaka Uzu, a consultant of family medicine at Bareen International Hospital.
“My understanding with the new strain is that it appears to be more contagious and spreads quickly.”
Tight restrictions have been imposed across the UK since November, but cases continue to climb with up to 60,000 new infections reported daily.
Scientists said this latest variant is linked with a higher load of infectious particles but many are baffled that has not resulted in more serious illness, as would normally be expected.
Adam Kucharski, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, warned a more transmissible virus would pose a greater problem than one that was more lethal.
At the UK's current transmission rates, 129 people would die after a month of the new variant spreading within a population of 10,000.
If the fatality risk increased by 50 per cent there would be 193 deaths, he said.
But if the transmission rate increased by 50 per cent, many more people would be infected leading to some 978 deaths.
"The key message: an increase in something that grows exponentially (i.e. transmission) can have far more effect than the same proportional increase in something that just scales an outcome (i.e. severity)," he said on Twitter.
In the UAE, record-high case figures were recorded on Thursday with 2,988 new coronavirus cases.
The total number of recorded cases in the UAE is 224,704.
Last week, health authorities confirmed that a "limited number" of the variant had been detected.
“We are worried about this new strain of the virus as we do not know what will come out of it,” said Dr Uzu, who was not aware of any recorded tests of B117 in Abu Dhabi.
“It appears it is more contagious, so we would encourage people to be extra careful and continue to take all the necessary precautions at least until we have more information on this mutated virus.
"It is good that fatality rates do not seem to be increasing in areas where it is present, but we know it is quite infectious. The severity is not much of a concern at the moment.”