Singapore confirms first case of new COVID-19 strain

Marje Pelayo   •   December 24, 2020   •   848

Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) confirmed on Wednesday (December 23) that one case of a new potentially more contagious strain of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) virus — the B117 strain— circulating in the United Kingdom, has been detected in the country.

The patient is a 17-year-old Singaporean student who returned from the UK.

She had been studying in the UK from August 2020 and returned to Singapore on December 6. She served the Stay-Home Notice (SHN) at a dedicated facility upon arrival. 

She developed a fever the next day, and was confirmed to have COVID-19 infection on December 8.

All her close contacts had been placed on quarantine, and had tested negative for COVID-19 infection at the end of their quarantine period. 

“As she had been isolated upon arrival in Singapore, we were able to ringfence this case so that there was no further transmission arising from her,” the Ministry assured.

Following the recent report, the National Public Health Laboratory is performing viral genomic sequencing for confirmed COVID-19 cases who had arrived from Europe recently. 

From arrivals of passengers from Europe between November 17 and December 17, a total of 31 were confirmed to have COVID-19 infection in December which included one who has been found carrying the B117 strain.

The MOH said another 11 cases are pending confirmatory results who are preliminarily positive for the B117 strain. 

The agency assured that there is no evidence that the B117 strain is circulating in the community and all the cases had been placed on 14-day ‘stay at home notice’ (SHN) at dedicated facilities or isolated upon arrival in Singapore, and their close contacts had been quarantined earlier.

As a precautionary measure to reduce the risk of spread to Singapore, the Multi-Ministry Taskforce announced effective immediately, all long-term pass holders and short-term visitors with recent travel history to the UK within the last 14 days will not be allowed entry into Singapore, or transit through Singapore. 

Meanwhile, returning Singaporeans and permanent residents will be required to undergo a COVID-19 PCR test upon arrival in Singapore, at the start of their 14-day SHN.

PH extends UK travel ban to Jan. 14, 2021

Marje Pelayo   •   December 28, 2020

MANILA, Philippines — The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF) as directed by President Rodrigo Duterte, has extended the travel ban for flights coming from the United Kingdom (UK) for two more weeks after December 31.

“Consequently, all passengers who have been to the UK in the last 14 days prior to arrival in the country are still restricted entry until January 14, 2021,” according to Bureau of Immigration (BI) Commissioner Jaime Morente.

The ban follows reports of a new strain of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the UK, which is reportedly 70% more infectious.

READ: PH announces entry ban of all UK flights starting Dec. 24

Currently, the BI is implementing a strict 100% passport inspection to determine the travel history of arriving passengers in the last 14 days.

Meanwhile, the BI vowed to expedite the Implementing Rules and Regulations for Executive Order No. 122 or the Strengthening Border Control Through the Adoption and Implementation of the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS).

The APIS is an electronic communications system that collects biographic data on passenger or crew, which is transmitted to the BI prior to arrival, and allows for early vetting on the admissibility of an arriving alien.

“The API system is very timely, as apart from protecting the country from aliens with derogatory records, it would allow us to deny the boarding of passengers who have a travel history to the UK in the last 14 days, instead of having to detect them upon arrival in the country,” Morente said.

Singapore scientists to start human trials of COVID-19 vaccine in August

UNTV News   •   June 16, 2020

Singapore scientists testing a COVID-19 vaccine from U.S. firm Arcturus Therapeutics plan to start human trials in August after promising initial responses in mice.

The vaccine being evaluated by Singapore’s Duke-NUS Medical School works on the relatively-untested Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which instructs human cells to make specific coronavirus proteins that produce an immune response.

“The most optimistic case is that it’s about this time next year, that we will have a vaccine,” Ooi Eng Eong, deputy director of the school’s emerging infectious diseases programme, told Reuters on Tuesday (June 16).

The mRNA approach has not yet been approved for any medicine so its backers, which also include U.S. biotech firm Moderna, are treading uncharted territory.

More than 100 vaccines are being developed globally, including several already in human trials, to try and control a disease that has infected more than 8 million people and killed over 430,000 worldwide.

Ooi is also working on a monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19 with Singapore-based biotechnology firm Tychan, and will begin safety trials on healthy people this week, before testing on COVID-19 patients in the coming months. Ooi said potential deployment of the treatment could be faster than the vaccine, without giving an exact timeline.

Antibodies are generated in the body to fight off infection. Monoclonal antibodies mimic natural antibodies and can be isolated and manufactured in large quantities to treat diseases.

Tiny city-state Singapore has one of the highest infection tallies in Asia, with more than 40,000 cases, largely due to mass outbreaks in dormitories for its migrant workers. (Reuters)

(Production: Joseph Campbell)

Singapore’s migrant workers fear financial ruin after virus ordeal

UNTV News   •   June 9, 2020

As Sharif Uddin begins to dream about leaving the cramped Singapore dormitory where he has spent weeks under coronavirus quarantine, fears about his future are creeping in.

The 42-year-old Bangladeshi construction site supervisor is one of the thousands of low-income migrant workers trapped in packed bunk rooms that have been ravaged by the coronavirus, accounting for more than 90% of Singapore’s 38,000 infections.

As Singapore began easing its lockdown measures this month, migrants like Uddin started to think about returning to the outside world, bringing to the surface worries about jobs and debts as Singapore braces for its deepest-ever recession.

“The fear of losing jobs is worrying everyone at the moment,” said Uddin, who sends the bulk of his wages to his family in Bangladesh, like many of the South Asians working in manual jobs in Singapore.

For most migrant workers, at least part of their salaries is used to pay off the steep fees of the agent who helped procure the job.

Reuters has interviewed over a dozen migrant workers in Singapore in recent weeks. While many said they were still being paid, they were unsure if they will retain their jobs when the quarantine is lifted.

The Singapore government has given companies tax breaks to try and ensure migrants get paid while under quarantine and introduced measures to help laid off workers find new positions without having to first travel back to their home country, a core complaint of many labourers.

Lawrence Wong, the co-head of Singapore’s virus task force, told Reuters that the government had taken steps to help alleviate the concerns of workers around job security, but added that layoffs were possible given the grim economic outlook.

“There may be some contractors who might decide – well despite all the government measures, with the new arrangements, the new additional requirements in construction, it is very difficult and I might not want to continue in this industry – and then indeed they might release some of their workers,” said Wong, who is also the minister for national development.

He added that some workers may remain quarantined in their dormitories until August, or possibly beyond, as the government completes mass testing.

The pandemic has drawn attention to the stark inequalities in the modern city-state where more than 300,000 labourers from Bangladesh, India and China often live in rooms for 12 to 20 men, working jobs that pay as little as S$20 ($14.30) a day.

That is higher than they would make at home. But the median salary for Singaporeans in 2019 was S$4,563 per month, according to the manpower ministry.

The bigger worry for many migrants like Uddin is the debts they have racked up securing jobs in Singapore.

Migrants will usually be charged S$7,000-10,000 in fees by a recruitment agent in their home country, equivalent to more than a year of their basic salary, according to rights groups. If they lose their job, this debt could haunt their families for years.

“An indebted worker is a more compliant worker and that is what the employers like. That is one reason too that employers prefer to have new workers, than to retain old workers,” said Deborah Fordyce, president of Singapore NGO Transient Workers Count Too.

Wong, the minister, said the government will continue to work to improve migrants’ lives in Singapore, but tackling issues like fees is difficult because many agents operate in the workers’ home countries outside the city-state’s jurisdiction.

Singapore’s government has pledged to improve living conditions for migrant workers in the short-term and build new, higher-spec dormitories over the coming years. (Reuters)

(Production: Pedja Stanisic, Joseph Campbell, Edgar Su, Travis Teo)

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