HELSINKI, Feb. 18 (Xinhua) -- Finland is on high alert over the new coronavirus variants. The government has extended the restrictions on entry into Finland and has ordered the closure of bars with immediate effect especially in the capital region, which is hit hardest by the coronavirus.
On Thursday, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (STM) said in a press release that the number of COVID-19 cases had remained at a rather high level nationwide in the past four weeks. Between 2,300 and 2,700 new infections are diagnosed weekly.
In Uusimaa, Finland's most populous region in the south, which includes the capital Helsinki, the epidemic situation has turned for the worse.
According to the STM, the incidence rate of coronavirus in the Helsinki and Uusimaa hospital districts has almost doubled in four weeks, while in almost all other hospital districts, the incidence rate has decreased.
Taneli Puumalainen, chief physician at the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), said on Thursday that residents of the Uusimaa region should not travel to other parts of Finland unless absolutely necessary.
The THL has also recommended that bars, pubs and nightclubs in the metropolitan area be closed completely as soon as possible for more than three weeks, until March 14.
According to the Ministry of the Interior's press release issued on Thursday, the government decided to extend the current restrictions on entry into the country until March 18, arguing that the coronavirus pandemic continues unabated and that sufficient measures to replace "internal border controls" are not yet available.
The term "internal border traffic" refers to the movement between Finland and other countries belonging to the border-free Schengen area. Finland currently restricts entry from all Schengen countries except Iceland.
Of particular concern to the Finnish authorities is the fast-spreading new COVID-19 variant first identified in Britain. To date, 450 cases of the new virus variants have been confirmed in Finland. Of these, 427 were cases of the variant identified in Britain.
Earlier on Thursday, local media reported that researchers had discovered a new, "unique" variant of the coronavirus in the south of Finland. The THL has yet to confirm this discovery.
At a press conference on Thursday, Puumalainen said it had to be ascertained whether a similar mutation had not been found elsewhere.
Liisa-Maria Voipio-Pulkki, director of strategy at the STM, noted at the press conference the need to act fast to identify and suppress the more contagious virus variants.
The THL said on Thursday that Finland had diagnosed 614 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, taking the nationwide tally to 52,209. The country reported two more deaths, raising the national death toll to 725.
As the world is struggling to contain the pandemic, vaccination is underway in Finland and other European countries with the already-authorized coronavirus vaccines.
Meanwhile, 250 candidate vaccines are still being developed worldwide -- 69 of them in clinical trials -- in countries including Germany, China, Russia, Britain and the United States, according to information released by the World Health Organization on Feb. 16. Enditem