Cuba has detected a potentially more contagious COVID-19 variant, just as the island experiences its biggest uptick in new cases since the start of the pandemic, health authorities said.
Cuban officials reported the presence of the “501Y.V2” variant first detected in South Africa to the Americas’ branch of the World Health Organization in an epidemiological report released Tuesday.
The Pan American Health Organization noted that preliminary studies indicate the new strain is associated with a higher viral load, indicating “a potential for greater transmissibility.” However, the variant has not been linked to an increased risk of death.
Virus cases have risen significantly in Cuba in recent weeks after months of low infection rates. The island closed its airports to international travelers for nearly eight months and imposed a strict quarantine. But a severe economic downturn compelled authorities to reopen before the holidays. The government blames travelers for the new outbreak. Now in the country’s main cities, Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Santa Clara, the virus is spreading mostly among Cuban residents.
Dr. María Guadalupe Guzmán, a top researcher at the Pedro Kourí Institute of Tropical Medicine, known by its Spanish acronym, IPK, said last Friday that the South African strain was detected in an asymptomatic traveler from that country.
The traveler and his close contacts complied with the island’s required quarantine, she said. But she wouldn’t rule out the possibility it had entered through other travelers as well.
“With the data we have, we cannot say that it is widespread in the country,” Guzmán said. “But we cannot rule it out because a high number of cases are being reported daily.”
On Tuesday, the country broke a new record for daily COVID-19 cases, with 786 reported. Since Jan. 2, there have been 50 deaths and 9,404 new cases, a figure that represents 43% of all infections since the government began publishing data in March last year.
Although it is still too early to link the circulation of this variant with the increase in cases in Cuba, epidemiologist Carlos Espinal said it is “very important that the IPK remains transparent and shows the results of studies about the dispersion of this variant in Cuba.”
“This is another threat that the United States will have to think about — restricting travel to Cuba, most likely in the near future,” said Espinal, who heads the Global Health Consortium at Florida International University.
The United States already requires all international travelers to show a negative COVID-19 test upon arrival. It has also suspended the entry of people from South Africa, the United Kingdom and Brazil to contain new, more contagious mutations identified in those countries.
Guzmán and other Cuban public health officials have attributed the spike in cases to the relaxation of preventive measures and a decrease in the perception of risk among the population.
“Irresponsibility cannot continue to prevail in our country,” Dr. Francisco Durán García, Cuba’s national director of epidemiology, said Tuesday, adding that citizens should play their part. “We cannot achieve [better results] only based on fines and other measures.”
The Cuban government reduced the number of international flights arriving on the island, imposed mandatory testing for all travelers, and ordered a strict quarantine in Havana and other cities in recent weeks. Still, the virus does not appear to be abating.
In Havana, there were 344 new cases reported this Tuesday. According to official figures, more than 9,000 people are currently admitted to hospitals nationwide, most of them confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.
While health authorities have published data on the number of PCR tests performed to diagnose the virus — recording a little more than 1.8 million administered since March 2020 — they have not said how many samples of the virus they regularly analyze to detect the circulation of new strains.
Espinosa said that the presence of new variants requires establishing a program to sequence the virus and determine which mutations circulate in a country.
The South African variant worries experts because some preliminary studies suggest it might be more resistant to treatments and vaccines.
“The South African strain is the great threat,” Espinal said. “The risk is that if left unchecked, it could jeopardize the effectiveness of the vaccination program because it has been able to change its protein structure and partially evade the antibody response that vaccines produce.”
Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles contributed.
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres