Vietnam on high alert as coronavirus cases detected in major cities

By Rebecca Ratcliffe South-east Asia correspondent

Vietnam is on high alert and bracing for a rise in coronavirus cases, after local media reported that infections have been detected in the capital, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and the Central Highlands region.

The country’s prime minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc warned on Wednesday that every province and every city was at risk, adding that the new “wave” appeared to be different to that seen in Vietnam earlier this year.

Vietnam, which has been praised for its response to the pandemic, reported its first local case for more than three months last weekend, after a man in the central city of Da Nang became ill. Officials have said that the recent infections involve a new strain of the virus that has originated outside of the country, and which seemed to be more virulent.

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So far, 30 cases of the virus have been detected in or around Da Nang, while two cases have been confirmed in Ho Chi Minh City, and one has been reported in both Hanoi and Central Highlands. There are growing fears that tens of thousands of people holidaying in the coastal city of Da Nang may have transported the virus across the country over recent weeks.

“We have to act more swiftly and more fiercely in order to control the outbreak,” the state broadcaster VTV reported Phuc as telling a meeting of government officials. He said tourist hubs throughout the country should increase vigilance.

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Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

In June 2020, Beijing suffered from a new cluster of coronavirus cases which caused authorities to re-implement restrictions that China had previously been able to lift. In the UK, the city of Leicester was unable to come out of lockdown because of the development of a new spike of coronavirus cases. Clusters also emerged in Melbourne, requiring a re-imposition of lockdown conditions.

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry is that with a vaccine still many months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

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The government is evacuating 80,000 people from Da Nang, mostly tourists who had been taking advantage of discounted travel deals, who will be required to isolate at home. The city has been placed under strict lockdown, with flights suspended.

VTV reported that the cases in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were linked to the cluster in Da Nang.

Life in Vietnam had been returning to normal, with many people no longer wearing face masks and domestic tourism booming, but the country is again on high alert. In Hanoi, authorities are tracing people who may have had close contact with a man who works in a pizza restaurant and who is suspected of having Covid-19. Barriers have been placed near to the man’s home, while the restaurant and local area have been disinfected.

In Ho Chi Minh City, a hotel has been locked down and a nearby hospital in Binh Tan district has stopped receiving patients for three days, after two suspected Covid-19 cases emerged.

About 18,000 tourists who had been in Da Nang have returned to Ho Chi Minh City, officials said on Tuesday. Hanoi authorities had earlier said they were expecting 15,000 to 20,000 to return from the city.

The country responded with speed and agility to the pandemic earlier this year, deploying aggressive contact-tracing systems and quarantine measures – avoiding a major outbreak. Despite sharing a border with China, Vietnam has recorded 446 450 Covid-19 cases, and no fatalities.

This figure does not include 140 construction workers infected with Covid-19 who were evacuated from Equatorial Guinea on Wednesday, and who will be treated at a hospital outside Hanoi.

The source of the new cases is not clear, though the government has responded with a series of arrests linked to illegal immigration. Vietnam remains shut to most foreign travellers, and anyone who enters the country must quarantine on arrival.

Reuters contributed to this report