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Vietnam, facing a surge and a new coronavirus variant, tightens restrictions in its largest city

Vietnam, which is coping with its worst outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, announced new restrictions for its largest city on Sunday, a day after its health minister said a “very dangerous” new variant of the coronavirus had been detected in the country.

New social distancing requirements will be imposed in Ho Chi Minh City, which used to be known as Saigon and has a population of some nine million, roughly double that of the capital, Hanoi. The restrictions include a limit of five people in public gatherings, the state-run newspaper Tuoi Tre reported. A church in Ho Chi Minh City is at the center of a cluster involving at least 126 cases, according to state news media.

City officials said that residents should maintain strict social distancing of at least six feet and stay home unless absolutely necessary, especially if they are over 60, Tuoi Tre reported. It said the restrictions would go into effect at midnight.

Until recently, Vietnam, a country of about 97 million people, had had remarkable success in containing the virus. Last year, it never reported more than 50 new cases in a single day. By the end of April, it had reported fewer than 3,000 cases and only 35 deaths.

But since then, its caseload has more than doubled, to nearly 7,000, and its death toll has risen to 47. The coronavirus has now spread to at least 30 of the country’s municipalities and provinces.

Vietnam’s discovery of a new variant was reported at a government meeting Saturday by the health minister, Nguyen Thanh Long. He said it had traits of the variants first identified in India and Britain, according to Reuters, which obtained a recording of the meeting.

“That the new one is an Indian variant with mutations that originally belong to the U.K. variant is very dangerous,” Mr. Long said. He said laboratory tests indicated that the variant replicated itself very rapidly, which he said could potentially explain the surge of cases in Vietnam.

But it was not immediately clear how much was understood about the variant — whether it replicates as rapidly in normal conditions as it does in the lab, which specific mutations it has and how prevalent it might be. Viruses mutate constantly, but most of the mutations dwindle away. Mr. Long said the government would publish data about it soon.

Before Sunday, Vietnam had already imposed a wide range of restrictions in areas where outbreaks had occurred, including closing restaurants, bars, clubs, parks and spas. It also imposed a nationwide ban on religious gatherings.

Other Southeast Asian countries are also battling their worst outbreaks of the pandemic, including Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, which on Saturday reported its fifth consecutive daily record of new cases with more than 9,000. Taiwan, another success story from last year, is also suffering its worst outbreak.

All five governments are trying to step up their vaccination efforts. Health experts have said that the slow pace of inoculation in much of the world poses the risk that new variants that are deadlier and more easily transmitted will continue to emerge.

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