Malaysia Sets New COVID Case Record Amid Concerns About New Variant

A coronavirus outbreak in Malaysia that began in April is overwhelming hospitals in the Southeast Asian nation, prompting the government to impose a partial lockdown until June 7 as cases reach new highs.

Cases hit 7,289 on Tuesday, bringing the country's overall count to 525,889. The increase is five times more than Malaysia started with in January, and deaths have spiked to more than 2,300. The outbreak is the third worst in the region, following Indonesia and the Philippines.

Malaysian Health Director-General Noo Hisham Abdullah said Tuesday that the country must "prepare for the worst" as the outlook worsens.

Malaysia Vaccines
People wait to receive the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on May 21. Malaysian authorities reported more than 6,000 new coronavirus cases for the third consecutive day as the country continues to battle a third wave of infections. Photo by Annice Lyn/Getty Images

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

The worsening outbreak in Malaysia has sparked alarm and is spilling over into neighboring Thailand, which recently discovered a more infectious variant in its south believed to have come from Malaysia.

Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob expressed concern Tuesday that the number of infected children has grown eight-fold to 64,046 so far this year, from just over 8,000 at the end of last year. Two-thirds are under 12, including 6,290 babies under 18 months old, he said.

The government has shut all schools, prohibited dining in restaurants and banned social activities and inter-state travel, but has resisted calls for a full lockdown because of fears it would cause an economic catastrophe.

Instead, restrictions were tightened Tuesday with more people made to work from home, business operating hours shortened and consumers allowed to shop at malls for only two hours. The capacity and frequency of public transport have also been cut by half, causing longer lines and bigger crowds at bus and train stations.

Malaysia aims to vaccine 80 percent of its population by next year and has ramped up its inoculation program, with nearly 2.5 million of its 33 million people having received at least one dose of vaccine. Still, officials are worried about the rapid spread of the virus, especially clusters involving new variants originating in South Africa and India.

The outbreak has spilled into Thailand, which has locked down several southern villages along the Malaysian border after identifying infections involving the South African variant that is thought to be more contagious. It was believed to have been spread by an infected person who crossed the border from Malaysia.

Thailand has also seen a recent surge, with confirmed cases rising to 135,439, including 832 deaths. It will begin its national vaccination campaign on June 7 and hopes to vaccinate 70 percent of the estimated 70 million people living in the country by the end of the year. It has administered 2.91 million doses so far, using vaccines from AstraZeneca and China's Sinovac.

Health officials have called on the government to quickly diversify its vaccine procurement. Only four vaccines have so far been authorized for use in Thailand and only two have been administered: AstraZeneca and Sinovac. The AstraZeneca vaccine is to be locally manufactured and play a key role in the inoculation effort.

Critics of Thailand's handling of the crisis say local business interests played a role in delaying and limiting vaccination efforts.

Food and Drugs Administration Secretary-General Paisarn Dankum said the government will consider later this week whether to approve a vaccine made by China's Sinopharm.

A medical staffer walks outside a vaccination center in Kepong, Malaysia, on May 25. AP Photo/Vincent Thian