The Omicron variant coronavirus entered Tonga for the first time in the wake of last month’s volcanic eruption, officials have confirmed, as the number of Covid-19 cases in the kingdom almost doubled to 64.
Health Minister Saia Piukala said 31 new cases had been detected in the previous 24 hours, a record for the island nation which was virus-free until last month’s blast.
Piukala said samples sent to Australia confirmed the variant of the virus spreading in Tonga was the highly transmissible Omicron strain.
The source of the coronavirus infection remains unknown, but suspicion has fallen on ships delivering aid from countries including Australia, China, France, Japan and New Zealand despite strict quarantine rules on the handling of goods.
Australian defence chiefs have denied it came from the Covid-hit warship HMAS Adelaide, saying the vessel did not unload its humanitarian supplies at the wharf in Nuku’alofa, where the virus was first detected.
The nation of about 100,000 remains in lockdown, with stay-at-home orders meaning all businesses and schools are closed and only essential services are allowed to operate.
The restrictions are hampering disaster relief efforts after the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted with a force scientists said was more powerful than a nuclear bomb.
The blast generated massive tsunami waves and blanketed the island nation in toxic ash, claiming three lives.
Some 87 percent of eligible Tongans have received two vaccine doses, according to UN data.
Communications remain a problem in the kingdom after the eruption cut the undersea cable linking Tonga to the rest of the world.
Tonga Cable Limited said this week that a cable repair ship had found the broken ends of the link but damage was worse than expected, meaning it was unlikely to be fixed before February 20.
In the meantime, backup satellite links are being used but bandwidth is limited and international communications remain difficult for most Tongans.
© Agence France-Presse