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Singapore has yet to see any significant mutation of the coronavirus and is watching closely whether that could have a significant impact on its containment strategy, a top health ministry official said, amid concerns the pathogen may be changing in unknown ways.

“Many viruses, including this coronavirus, mutate and we are watching this closely to see if any of the mutations has a significant impact with the way we deal with coronavirus in general,” Vernon Lee, director of the communicable diseases division, said in a Bloomberg TV interview with Haslinda Amin and Rishaad Salamat on Friday. “So far, we’ve not found any that would change our overall strategy.”

Researchers worldwide are trying to ascertain if the virus is mutating in ways to become more contagious as it races through the human population, though early research suggesting this possibility has been criticized for being overblown.

In Singapore, the city-state is learning more about the virus from the new research that crops up, Lee said. Until there’s fresh evidence, it’s relying heavily on testing and contact-tracing to curb the virus spread, according to Lee, who says a rapid identification of cases underpins its overall anti-virus strategy.

The country is racing to contain an infection outbreak among thousands of foreign workers, which has pushed its total tally to nearly 30,000 cases as of Thursday and made the tiny city-state one of Asia’s most infected nations.

China Findings

Findings from China, where new clusters have emerged despite having one of the most comprehensive virus detection and testing regimes globally, suggest that the uncertainty over how the virus behaves may hinder governments’ efforts to curb its spread and re-open their battered economies.

The clusters in China’s northeast region show the virus manifesting differently among patients compared to the original outbreak in Wuhan. Patients appear to carry the virus for a longer period of time and take longer to test negative.

The resurgence of infection in the region has sparked renewed lockdown measures over a region of 100 million people, with train services halted, schools closed and residential compounds sealed off.

Singapore Testing

Singapore is moving to lift its partial lockdown -- now into the seventh week -- and reopen more businesses from June 2. The government has warned however that community cases could rise as activities restart.

More infections could also be confirmed as it ramps up testing, pivoting from selectively screening for cases to mass testing that covers foreign workers and vulnerable people such as elderly residents in nursing homes.

Authorities already plan to bolster its testing capacity fivefold, from about 8,000 to as many as 40,000 tests a day by later this year, amid concerns over a global shortage of test kits and materials. Singapore, which still primarily uses polymerase chain reaction testing and includes serological tests in its approach, is looking across the globe for testing technology, Lee said.

“We’re looking all across the world to see what is the latest technology, where these technologies can be produced in scale to meet our requirements,” he said.

Lee said the current research shows that the virus spreads mostly through air droplets and contact with contaminated surfaces. There’s also very low transmission before symptoms show up, he said.

“That’s why rapid identification of cases from testing is extremely important and that sort of underpins our overall strategy,” Lee said.

(Updates in fifth and sixth paragraphs on new findings in China, and from 13th paragraph on what Singapore has learned about virus.)

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.