BANGKOK—Thailand has detected at least 24 cases of the coronavirus variant B.1.1.7 first identified in Britain, a government health expert said on Wednesday, its first known domestic transmission of the highly contagious variant.
The SARS-CoV-2 variant known as B.1.1.7 has been found in more than 100 countries and has been blamed for fueling new waves of infections in record numbers.
The UK variant was found in a cluster of 24 visitors to entertainment venues in Bangkok, which were detected at the weekend. Nearly 200 such venues have been closed for two weeks.
"We did everything to block it, and it still gets through," Yong Poovorawan, a government expert and virologist at Chulalongkorn University, told a health ministry briefing.
"This variant is very viral and can spread 1.7 times faster than the usual strain," he said.
Thailand has seen infections jump in the past week, although numbers are still low compared to some of its regional neighbors.
It recorded 334 new infections on Wednesday, with no new deaths, bringing its case total to 29,905 and 95 fatalities.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha instructed authorities to prepare field hospitals in anticipation of a spike in infections.
Ten of his ministers and dozens of lawmakers were self-isolating on Wednesday due to exposure to positive cases.
"We can handle things right now and I have instructed the preparation for field hospitals in Bangkok area," Prayuth said of the rise in cases.
"We could need these field hospitals in case the pandemic worsens," he added.
Confirmation of the presence of the B.1.1.7 variant will be a setback for Thailand, which is just a week away from one of its biggest holiday periods.
B.1.1.7 is as much as 70% more transmissible than existing variants, and far deadlier, according to British scientists.
Yong said he was puzzled at how community transmission had occurred given Thailand's strict border controls, quarantine and testing protocols, which in January had detected the variant in a family traveling from Britain, who were isolated.
Opas Karnkawinpong of the Department of Disease Control warned of thousands of new daily infections if restrictions are not followed during the holiday period.
Thailand is aiming to start is mass immunisation campaign from June but has been vaccinating health workers or people deemed vulnerable, with more than 300,000 recipients so far, according to the Health Ministry.
(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um and Panarat Thempgumpanat; Editing by Martin Petty)