Vaccine less effective against the variant, no alternative to following health guidelines, say public health experts
As Covid-19 cases and deaths keep soaring and hospitals struggle to make space for critical patients, a new worry is troubling the health authorities in Bangladesh — the South African variant of coronavirus.
Researchers have found that the highly contagious variant is now dominant in the country.
Moreover, they have also observed that the South African variant has the ability to bypass the immune defences developed in a vaccine recipient’s system, making the already dire situation even worse.
However, health experts are of the opinion that people should complete the full course of the Covid-19 vaccine that is being administered in Bangladesh since it is the only option right now and provides protection against the South African variant to a certain degree and mitigates the severity of the disease.
Dr Asif Mujtaba Mahmud, respiratory medicine consultant at Asgar Ali Hospital and secretary general of Bangladesh Lung Foundation, told Dhaka Tribune that the key was to strictly follow hygiene rules and get inoculated.
“There is no other way. People need to wear masks, avoid gatherings, maintain social distancing, frequently wash their hands and complete the vaccination course. The South African variant is more vicious and unpredictable,” he said.
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Expressing similar views, Mushtaq Hossain, adviser to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), said it was crucial to adhere to the health guidelines that the public health experts had been recommending since the outbreak of Covid-19.
“People must get vaccinated. However, it is not a magic pill that can put an end to the pandemic overnight. Complying with health guidelines, particularly avoiding gatherings and wearing a mask, is of paramount importance,” he added.
The South African variant of coronavirus has taken over as the most dominant variant in Dhaka, according to a recent study by the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b).
The study, conducted from March 18 to 24, analyzed the genome sequence of 57 samples from Covid-19 patients and found that over 80% (46 samples) matched the South African variant.
Calling the pandemic an unprecedented global crisis, Mushtaq Hossain warned that new variants of the virus might keep emerging. “A holistic approach to vaccination and compliance with health guidelines are needed to end the pandemic.”
How South African variant spread in Bangladesh
A recent study, “The Emergence and Spread of SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern in Bangladesh and the Need for Public Awareness'”, conducted by the Child Health Research Foundation (CHRF), noted that the South African variant had entered Bangladesh either from the Middle East or Europe.
Arif Mohammad Tanmoy, researcher at the CHRF, told Dhaka Tribune that research by the foundation had shown that the variant might not have come to Bangladesh from South Africa.
“Middle Eastern and European variants of coronavirus were more prevalent in Bangladesh earlier. We think the South African variant came here from countries where the South African variant is more dominant. We are assuming it came either from the Middle East or Europe,” he said.
Travelers from the Middle East and Europe might be carriers of the South African variant since scores of people visited Bangladesh from those parts of the world, the researcher added.
Vaccine’s efficacy against South African variant
Talking to Dhaka Tribune, Dr Shahriar Rozen, former research fellow at the icddr,b and currently senior policy lead at the Alberta Ministry of Health in Canada, said the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was not that effective against the South African coronavirus variant.
“This variant has a mutation, called E484K, that has an immune escape mechanism. It helps the virus dodge a person’s immune system. The South African variant is also more contagious as it carries another mutation called N501Y,” he said.
According to a study, “Efficacy of the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 Covid-19 Vaccine against the B.1.351 Variant”, published by the New England Journal of Medicine, the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is not effective against mild-to-moderate infections caused by the South African variant. Experts, however, think that the vaccine does offer some protection against severe illnesses.
The CHRF study also found that the South African variant spread quickly and had the ability to escape immunity developed by the vaccine.
Dr Rozen said the Bangladesh government should procure Johnson & Johnson shots as the one-dose vaccine had shown a 64% efficacy rate in South Africa.
“Bangladesh should stop relying on a single vaccine type and launch a diplomatic effort to procure the one developed by Johnson & Johnson,” he added.
Vacationing behind the recent surge?
Dr Asif Mujtaba Mahmud said people who took trips to tourist spots in February had likely become super-spreaders.
“Vacationers were apathetic towards the health crisis in February. They travelled across the country and paid little or no attention to hygiene rules. I am convinced that the surge [in Covid-cases] in March is the result of reckless travelling and people’s reluctance to follow health directives,” he stated.
Meanwhile, Dr Shahriar Rozen suggested that the government enforce strict measures and bar public gatherings and inter-district movement.
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He continued: “The current relaxed measures are unlikely to curb the spread of the South African variant. If stern action is not taken, the country is likely to witness more infections and deaths in the coming weeks.
“The masses need to be made aware of the transmission of dangerous coronavirus variants in Bangladesh … It may persuade them to follow health and safety rules.”
Importance of genome sequencing
Experts are of the view that Bangladeshi researchers should continue genome sequencing as advanced genome mining of coronavirus will provide scientists with clues to the exact locations of virus mutations.
Mushtaq Hossain of the IEDCR said coronavirus had spread rapidly all over the world in the last one year, which was the reason behind the emergence of new variants.
“As people belonging to different parts of the world have different genetic makeups, coronavirus keeps mutating and developing new variants,” he told Dhaka Tribune.
Dr Rozen said that, as recommended by the World Health Organization, Bangladesh needed to conduct more genome sequencing in order to detect and survey mutations and assess infections and fatalities caused by each variant.