Several countries in Asia confirmed presence of the UK variant over the last few months
A fresh surge of Covid-19 in Bangladesh that started in early March saw the test positivity rate in the country jump from 3% to 13% in just two weeks.
Meanwhile, health authorities have admitted to finding six patients with the UK variant of the novel coronavirus in Bangladesh, with the first of the patients detected in January.
Authorities have largely put the blame for the surge on the public for not following health rules, but they also suspect the UK variant may be playing a role.
The world came to know about the UK variant in early December. Quoting scientists and experts, several media reports said the variant may be more transmissible, lethal or evade immunity acquired by prior infection or vaccines.
When the variant first came to the attention of the UK government, it was said that it is 70% more transmissible than more common variants.
Several countries in Asia found the presence of the UK variant in their country in February. In early March, Vietnam became the first country in Asia to announce that the new wave of Covid-19 there was being caused by the fast-spreading UK variant.
Pakistan confirmed the presence of the UK variant on February 28.
On March 24, after sequencing 10,000 genomes, India said over 700 genomes carried the UK variant of Sars-CoV-2 virus. They also found the South Africa and Brazil variants in the country.
The new variant in Bangladesh
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US CDC) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the UK variant is threatening to create new global upsurge.
In mid-January, two separate studies in the UK found that people who tested positive for the virus in the community, rather than in hospital, face a roughly 30% increase in the risk of death associated with the new variant.
Several physicians working at ICU units of Covid-19 dedicated hospitals in Dhaka said most of the new patients they are receiving are 30-40 years of age.
“The worst part is that it took only two to three days to infect the lungs, as compared to seven to 10 days previously. The patients sometimes did not even understand the severity of their condition as well, which caused the most harm,” said Dr Akhtaruzzaman of the ICUs unit at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Hospital.
Dr Be-Nazir Ahmed, infectious disease expert and former director of the Disease Control unit at DGHS, suspects the UK variant is playing an active role in the spread of the coronavirus.
DGHS Additional Director General Dr Meerjady Sabrina Flora, after attending a program at CMSD in Dhaka, also said the UK variant is playing a role in the recent surge of Covid-19 across the country, but the extent to which it is responsible for the surge cannot be ascertained right now.
She further said the flouting of health guidelines had accelerated the spread of Covid-19.
No genome sequencing consortium in Bangladesh
Heavy presence of the UK variant in India was disclosed by the country’s Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare Dr Harsh Vardhan after the virus was sequenced at the SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) in India.
INSACOG is a group of 10 national laboratories under the Health Ministry who carried out genomic sequencing. No such integrated sequencing effort has been set up by health authorities in Bangladesh.
Recently, some Bangladeshi researchers published a research paper titled “Global and Local Mutations in Bangladeshi SARS-CoV-2 Genomes” on Elsevier, an online portal, on March 15. The paper documented a total of 34 unique amino acid changes during mutation since early December.
The study found that the SARS CoV-2 virus had mutated 4,604 times since it arrived in Bangladesh. The research was conducted after analyzing the genome sequences uploaded to GISAID from Bangladesh.
GISAID is a global platform for sharing research information among partner institutions.
What experts say
Dr ASM Alamgir, principal scientific officer at the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) said genome sequencing is proceeding in a scattered way in Bangladesh. Only about 450 genome sequences have been uploaded to GISAID, among which 28-30 are of the UK variant, one or two are of the South African variant and there are no traces of the Brazilian variant yet.
He also believes the new surge is being caused by the local variant rather than the UK variant, but the UK variant may soon take over.
“Only people returning from the UK are being screened for the UK variant, but it has already spread to more than 80 countries in the world,” he added.
When asked about the lungs of patients appearing to become infected faster in recent times, Dr Alamgir said: “There is a culture of denial in the country. People think they cannot get infected with Covid-19 and that they just have a normal cold, so it is already too late by the time they get tested.”
Nusrat Sultana, assistant professor at the department of virology of Dhaka Medical College and Hospital, said in a Facebook status that samples for Covid-19 tests in the country contained higher viral loads, which is a characteristic of the South African variant of the coronavirus.
“It is essential to carry out genome sequencing for more information,” she said.
Sources from the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) told national media that they completed sequencing 120 genomes last Thursday, among which 70% were found to be of the UK variant. The results of the research are yet to be published.
Dr Nazrul Islam, eminent virologist and member of National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19, said: “We need more research to identify the actual reasons behind the sudden increase in transmission. The government must spend more money on coordinated research, or safety measures cannot be effectively implemented.”
Dr Robed Amin, a spokesperson for the DGHS media cell, admitted that a lack of research was hampering proper utilization of limited resources.
“Results need to be validated and disclosed from one responsible source or it will create confusion, as we have already seen,” he added.