MoH to send local COVID-19 samples for genome sequencing to check if variants have entered Bhutan

The Ministry of Health (MoH) is sending samples of infected people from Phuentsholing and Thimphu for genome sequencing to a WHO recognized laboratory in Bangkok.

The Health Minister Dasho Dechen Wangmo said that around 15 to 20 samples will be sent from cases in Phuentsholing and Thimphu to the laboratory in Bangkok to check if international and regional COVID-19 variants have entered Bhutan.

The minister said the concern is that the new variants are much more severe and more transmissible. Lyonpo said the test normally takes 10 to 14 days but they have requested to expedite the process.

Lyonpo said that they are keeping a close eye trying to understand which variants are coming into the country and simultaneously also looking at diagnostics or how test kits will work to detect such variants. The minister said they they in touch with the makers of the RT-PCR tests kits to be updated on any information on any relevant tests against the variants.

There have been some isolated reports that the RT-PCR tests kits may not necessarily be able to detect certain variants which have undergone a lot of mutations though the RT-PCR tests is still the gold standard.

The minister said that as of now officially according to the WHO there are only five variants of concern and these are the UK variant, South African variant, Brazil variant and two strains from California.

She said in all of the above the diseases severity is higher and it is more transmissible. She said demographically more children are being effected though this needs more study. Lyonpo said they are keeping a close eye in the literature on variants.

Neighboring India which is undergoing a massive second wave has reported the UK variant or B.1.1.7 which is second most common variant, and also the South African and Brazil variant. Around 80 percent of the cases in Bangladesh is is caused by the South African variant.

However, as cases surge in a major second wave in India, scientists there worry that the surge of infections in India is possibly being pushed by the new double variant of COVID-19 called B.1.617 first detected in Maharashtra, but it now the most common variant in India.

The B.1.617 variant of SARS-CoV-2 carries two mutations, E484Q and L452R. Both are separately found in many other coronavirus variants, but they have been reported together for the first time in India.

The two mutations are found in the virus’s spike protein. The spike protein helps the virus to bind itself to the human cell’s receptors and gain entry into a host cell.

Dr Sonam Wangchuk of the National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NI-TAG) said the recent positive cases reported from the community and quarantine centers could be the new Indian variant.

“Right now we don’t know which variant our country has, so the ministry will have to wait for the genome sequencing. We are assuming that since India is having the new variant B.1.617 and so people testing positive in the country could be of this new COVID-19 variant,” said Dr Sonam Wangchuk.

He said the new COVID-19 variant B.1.617 has higher transmissibility but more severity may not be there.

The study is going on whether the new Indian variant is capable of immune escape or not and discussions are going on the efficacy of the vaccine. India’s health ministry said the mutations in the variant confer immune escape.

If the above was not enough a new variant has been found in West Bengal which is a triple mutation or B.1.618 found mainly in West Bengal but also present in samples in Delhi and Maharashtra.

It has three mutations which make it more transmissible and it has also a mutation that could give it immune escape.

Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that even if there are new COVID variants in the country, it does not change much in terms of interventions. The ministry will keep on monitoring whether the new variant has major impacts or not. There will be no change in isolation and quarantine protocols and treatment.

As per the WHO, the COVID-19 vaccines that are currently in development or have been approved are expected to provide at least some protection against new virus variants because these vaccines elicit a broad immune response involving a range of antibodies and cells. Therefore, changes or mutations in the virus should not make vaccines completely ineffective.

In order to prevent future new variants of the COVID-19 virus, stopping the spread at the source remains key.

Current measures to reduce transmission, including frequent hand washing, wearing a mask, physical distancing, good ventilation and avoiding crowded places or closed settings, continue to work against new variants by reducing the amount of viral transmission and therefore also reducing opportunities for the virus to mutate.

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