Pakistan on Tuesday reported its first confirmed cases of a new coronavirus strain detected in the United Kingdom earlier this year.
According to the Sindh health department, 12 samples of UK returnees were taken for genotyping out of which six were positive and three showed the new variant of the Covid virus in the first phase. Moreover, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) later released a statement, saying two more patients admitted to the National Institute of Health in Islamabad also showed the new variant.
"The genotyping showed 95 per cent match of the new variant from the UK. These samples will go through another phase of genotyping," said Meeran Yousuf, spokesperson for the Sindh health department. For its part, the NCOC said that all the patients' "results have to be confirmed through further analysis (whole genome sequencing) which will take a few more days to complete."
"Meanwhile, the contact tracing of these patients is in process and their contacts are also being isolated," Meeran said.
The World Health Organisation tweeted earlier this month that it was “in close contact with UK officials on the new #COVID19 virus variant” and promised to update governments and the public as more is learned.
The new strain was identified in southeastern England in September and has been spreading in the area ever since, a WHO official told the BBC.
“What we understand is that it does have increased transmissibility, in terms of its ability to spread,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19.
Viruses mutate regularly, and scientists have found thousands of different mutations among samples of the virus causing Covid-19. Many of these changes have no effect on how easily the virus spreads or how severe symptoms are.
The new SARS-CoV-2 variant, later given the ID B.1.1.7, was first discovered in the United Kingdom and appears to spread faster than others, according to Science Magazine. Researchers believe it may have originated in an immunocompromised patient who had a long-running infection.
According to Science Magazine, genome sequencing of the new variant showed that the virus had accumulated a slew of mutations that together caused 17 amino acid changes in the virus’ proteins, eight of them in the crucial spike protein. These changes would help it evade the immune system and theoretically make it twice as infectious.
News of the coronavirus variant coming to Pakistan is concerning because it, according to a study by the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK, is on average 56 per cent more contagious than the original version, is spreading fast and is likely to boost hospitalisations and deaths.
“The increase in transmissibility [of new variant] is likely to lead to a large increase in incidence, with Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths projected to reach higher levels in 2021 than were observed in 2020, even if regional tiered restrictions implemented before 19 December are maintained,” said researchers.
The discovery of the new strain set off alarm bells worldwide just as more countries began vaccination campaigns to halt a pandemic that has claimed more than 1.7 million lives since it emerged a year ago in China.
NCOC 'monitoring situation closely'
The development comes as Pakistan is currently in the midst of a second Covid-19 wave. Pakistan reported the highest number of deaths during the second wave, and the second-highest since the beginning of the pandemic, with 111 people dying in the country on Thursday.
The Ministry of National Health Services (NHS) said that it is vigilant about the emergence of the new variant of SARS CoV-2 in Pakistan. However, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on health Dr Faisal Sultan admitted that the situation in the health sector of Pakistan was depicting a gloomy picture. He said the situation was the "worst" when compared to other South Asian countries.
In its statement issued on Tuesday evening, the NCOC said that the government had already taken a number of steps to respond to the development.
"On December 21, the NCOC decided to limit and restrict travel from the UK to Pakistan only to certain categories of travellers and only under strict protocols that mandated a negative PCR test before the flight, a PCR test upon arrival in Pakistan and quarantine as prescribed by the authorities.
"Moreover, track, trace and quarantine was also initiated for passengers who had arrived from the UK as far as 7 days before the announcement of these travel restrictions.These measures are in place until Jan 4."
The statement added that samples of patients who had travelled from the UK and had tested positive were also being evaluated in select laboratories for the presence of the new variant. The detection of the variant in the five patients was made possible through these efforts, it added.
India finds six cases of virus variant
India has also found six cases of the more infectious coronavirus strain in people arriving from Britain and will likely extend a flight ban to guard against it, officials said on Tuesday.
All six of the infected people had been kept in isolation, the health ministry said in a statement, adding that their fellow travellers were being traced.
“Their close contacts have also been put under quarantine,” the ministry said.
India had suspended all flights from Britain until the end of the month over worry about the infectious variant of the virus but about 33,000 passengers had flown in from late November, before the ban was enforced, the ministry said.
Of those arrivals, 114 people were found positive for the coronavirus and their samples were being checked for the new variant, which has been detected across parts of Europe and Asia, it said.
Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said the ban on flights from Britain would probably remain in force into the New Year.
“I foresee a slight extension,” Puri told reporters. “I don't expect that extension to be a long or indefinite extension.”
With 10.22 million confirmed infections, India has the second-highest novel coronavirus caseload in the world, behind only the United States.
But on Tuesday it reported 16,432 new cases, the lowest daily rise since June 25, the health ministry said.
More than 148,150 people have died of Covid-19 in India, according to ministry data.
Health authorities expect to start a vaccination drive for some 300 million people early next month, with the Serum Institute of India, which is making the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus shot, expecting its emergency approval within days.