The Health Ministry has started distributing “mutation detection kits” to hospitals across the country as infections from a mutated version of the coronavirus recently rose. The ministry instructed health care workers to run a second test for each person who tests positive for the coronavirus to check whether they are infected with the new variants.
Last month, the Health Ministry announced that 128 citizens were infected with the mutated coronavirus and there were cases of the “U.K. variant” in 17 cities. The country has suspended flights to and from a number of countries as the infections were detected in people who traveled abroad.
Turkey has seen an uptick in the number of daily cases occasionally in recent weeks though no major surge was recorded. However, a sudden rise in cases on Monday, to 7,719 from 6,512 the previous day, raised concerns. Fatalities, meanwhile, rose to 26,117.
Professor Zafer Kurugöl, who heads the department of Children’s Health at Ege University in the western province of Izmir, said the new tests would allow them to see how the mutated virus spread throughout the country. Kurugöl told Hürriyet newspaper on Tuesday that they have been seeing a significant rise in the number of cases on some days. “There could be two factors for that: mutated virus infections and increased social mobility, especially during the semester break for schools,” he said.
Turkey's strict curfews in place at night and a partial 56-hour lockdown over the weekends helped in containing the number of infections in the country. “The mutated virus can cling to cells better and thus, becomes more infectious. I think there might be more cases of the mutated virus than reported because a routine mutated virus inspection had not been done before in previous cases. Starting this week, we will be able to run those second tests."
Professor Alpay Azap, a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, said, “Variants are a new nightmare.”
“We see changes in 23 different spots in the genetic structure of the virus, making it more infectious. If it mutates further, it will radically alter the structure of the current virus and will be resistant to available vaccines. The same risk applies to coronavirus treatment. There is a need to alter vaccines to adapt to this new mutation,” Azap told an event in the capital Ankara on Tuesday. The country vaccinated more than 2.1 million people as of Tuesday with CoronaVac, an inactive vaccine imported from China.
He warned that the variants' rate of infection is 40% higher than other forms of the virus. “This is the biggest threat awaiting humanity. We have to curb the number of cases as much as possible. This is the only way to break the chain of fast infections. So, lockdowns, complying with rules of mandatory masks, social distancing and hygiene are critical. Another way to fight against it is rapid vaccination,” he underlined.
Azap’s comments echoed Health Minister Fahrettin Koca’s Twitter message last week. Koca tweeted that although mutated virus did not affect “vaccine efforts” for now, new mutations can be a challenge. “Our biggest weapon against the outbreak is still wearing masks and adhere to social distancing,” he had warned on Jan. 29.
Along with standard rules for protection against the coronavirus, an additional mask may be helpful against the mutated virus, an expert says. Professor Ateş Kara, a member of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, told Demirören News Agency (DHA) on Tuesday that people should be extra careful against the new variants. "The virus used to infect three out of 10 people in an enclosed environment. This number now rose as high as seven. Standing 1 meter (3 feet) apart from others was sufficient for social distancing. We now have to increase it to at least 1.5 meters and limit our conversation with others in close proximity from 10 minutes at most to two minutes. In any closed environment, we can wear two masks," he said. He added that there wasn't a sudden surge in mutated cases though, indicating that people were more careful now and efforts of contact tracing crews to track down people who came close to positive patients were successful.