…given the high transmissibility of the infection 

As the number of daily cases soar touching 100 on May 29, many are worried if it is the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 that is spreading in the south and eastern parts of the country. 

Experts believe this could be possible. 

Although the Royal Centre for Disease Control (RCDC) is yet to send the samples for gene sequencing to Thailand, the technical advisory group’s (TAG) Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that given the behaviour of the current infection, the outbreak could be triggered by a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 first detected in India — B.1.617.2. 

Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that based on the disease epidemiology, the current outbreak started from the south, meaning, the only source of the outbreak is from across the border. 

He said that after the second nationwide lockdown in December last year, Bhutan did not have any Covid-19 virus in the community. The current outbreak started from Phuentsholing and during this particular time, the predominantly circulating virus in India was the B.1.617.2 variant. 

Also, looking at the high transmission rate, Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that there was no doubt that the same virus was infecting Bhutanese in the current outbreak. “While we still have to conduct the gene sequencing to confirm this, I’m sure it is the same variant, which has come from across the border and spilled over to different communities in the country.”

The B.1.617.2 variant which was first identified in Maharashtra, India in October last year is now one of the dominant variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus circulating in India and the United Kingdom including several other countries. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on May 11, 2021, classified the B.1.617.2 variant as a ‘Variant of Concern’ on top of three other variants of public health concern — UK (B.1.1.7), South African (B.1.351), and the Brazilian (P.1) variants.

Most cases asymptomatic and in stable condition 

Dr Sonam Wangchuk said that in India the variant has caused havoc with its high transmissibility and the ability to cause more severity among the infected. “People are seen requiring additional oxygen supply as they struggle to breath. Compared to the past infections, more people now require critical care in the hospitals.”

However, he said that the deteriorating condition in India was not only because of the new variant. “It is the sheer number of people who are infected that has led to this. It seems like the virus in India was in circulation for a long time but it required a super-event for it to spread.” 

Bhutan, he said, was not witnessing a similar impact even with the new variant mainly because of the vaccination. “We are seeing a high rate of transmission but the severity among the infected is low because the majority of our eligible adult population have received their vaccine,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the vaccine, the severity would have been more and many would have also required additional oxygen supply.”

It was learnt that most of the infected in Jomotshangkha, Merak, and Phuentsholing were asymptomatic and in stable condition. Officials said that none of them required critical care including oxygen supply. A few who were symptomatic were brought to the isolation centre in Samdrupjongkhar.

Dr Sonam Wangchuk explained that this was because although it was a new variant, the vaccine was still effective against the virus. He said that the main concern associated with the ‘Variants of Concern’ was on the vaccine effectiveness, accuracy of test kits and therapeutic procedure.

“The new variants are said to evade the immune system. However, the vaccine efficacy is still present despite this, which is why vaccination is still important,” he said.  

According to international experts, the AstraZeneca vaccine’s efficacy was around 33 percent with one dose and about 60 percent with a booster dose against the Indian variant. Similarly, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine’s efficacy was about 88 percent with two doses and about 50 percent with a single dose. 

By Younten Tshedup 

Edited by Tshering Palden