With a new variant known as B.1.1.529 or Omicron first detected in South Africa, experts are calling it the worst one ever seen so far, due to its double the number of mutations compared to the highly infectious Delta variant.
Data from South Africa shows the new variant is already present in most provinces in South Africa and is spreading rapidly. Early data on the ground from South Africa shows is not only out-competing other variants but it is also replacing Delta.
Omicron has been decalred a variant of concern by the World Health Organization.
The National Immunization Technical Advisory Group (NITAG) member Dr Sonam Wangchuk said the new variant found in South Africa and in some countries are highly transmissible compared to the Delta Variant, but the severity is not known.
He said Bhutan cannot assume that the new variant will not be detected since the export and imports are happening daily in the southern borders.
Dr Sonam said once the neighboring country (India) detects the new variant then it highly possible that Bhutan is expected to detect the new variant in Bhutan too.
He said if the new variant is detected in the country, it will likely be in the southern borders. However, he said there will not be huge outbreak since the country still has a strong surveillance system and another point of entry is in Paro Airport, where a strict quarantine protocol is being followed.
He said globally the vaccine coverage is inadequate and there is still vaccine hesitancy and this is what is fueling the virus mutation. He said to top it up many countries are opening up their international borders and relaxations are happening. “The virus is mutating and some virus are non-effective but some mutate to be very transmissible like the new variant,” said Dr Sonam.
He said some experts say that the current vaccine may not give adequate protection against the new variant.
Dr Sonam said that although Bhutan has high vaccine coverage, people are requested to strictly comply with public health interventions and non-pharmaceutical measurements which are effective in decreasing the transmission of COVID-19. He said people should avoid large gathering, wear masks all time, and follow hand washing. These are to be followed until the pandemic is over.
About the test kit, Dr Sonam said the current test kits can detect the new variant and they need not have to procure another to detect for every new variant.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead said B.1.1.529, the new variant that has been detected and reported from the South Africa. There are fewer than 100 whole genome sequences that are available. “We don’t know very much about this yet,” she said.
She said the variant has a large number of mutations and the concern is that when there is so many mutations, it can have an impact on how virus behaves. So right now researchers are getting together to understand where these mutations are and what that potentially may mean for the diagnostics, therapeutics and the vaccines.
She said it will take few weeks to understand what impact this variant has. There is a lot of work that is underway. The WHO has said it is not yet known if the variant causes more or less illness. An increasing number of countries are moving to stop flights from South Africa, Botswana and other African countries.
As of Friday there have been 2,828 cases in South Africa. Cases are also coming up in Hong Kong, Botswana, Belgium, Israel, UK, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Denmark, Australia and Canada too. The number of countries are expected to rise rapidly.
Scientists say the variant has 50 mutations overall and 32 on the spike protein, which is the target of most vaccines and the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway into our body’s cells.
These mutations on the spikes impact how transmissible the variant is, how resistant it is to vaccines and antibodies and also how severe it can get.
Epidemiologist Dr Eruc Feigl-Ding said the variant has two furin cleavage mutations and one of them is in the same spot which made Delta very transmissible.
He said that sero surveys in South Africa had shown that 72 percent of the population had been infected in the past, but the spread of the new variant shows that the natural immunity theory of better immunity form past infections does not work here.
Experts in South Africa have said the variant is “very different” to others that have circulated, with concerns that it could be more transmissible but also able to get around parts of the immune system.
A government official said there should be a good system in place to pick any kind of variants.
He said currently Bhutan follows the two weeks of quarantine and screening at the border and this will not allow any type of variant to come into the country. Though imports and exports are happening, the trade will continue with based on the SOPs that are in place.
“Our system is very strong and our current regulations are one of the strictest in the world. The only additional measures would be to give booster dose to our vulnerable population which the government is planning to do in February or March 2020,” he further added.
The new variant comes at a time when many Bhutanese are increasingly becoming careless about COVID-19 safety protocols with large gatherings, not wearing masks, not ventilating well etc.
The news of the variant led to stock markets to drop sharply all over the world with a reduction in the price of crude oil too.
One ray of hope is that early detection may make it easier to contain the variant.
Francois Balloux, an epidemiologist and director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, told the BBC on Friday that the early discovery of the variant could render it easier to contain even if it is more transmissible.