…in combating the pandemic and to contain the spread  

Younten Tshedup 

While the probability of introducing an effective Covid-19 vaccine in the country remains yet to be determined, experts are recommending preventive measures as the most effective option in the fight against the pandemic.

The country today is experiencing an outbreak of Covid-19 in clusters regions of Thimphu and Paro.

Since the detection of the outbreak on December 20 last year, the virus has infected a total of 312 people in the country.

Although the overall tally of people infected by the virus since March 2020 have crossed over 770 cases, less than 0.102 of the population have been infected so far. This means a significant proportion of the population is uninfected. Vaccine could play a major role in protecting the public from the virus.

However, besides uncertainties as to when and how many vaccines doses Bhutan might receive, there is a growing concern with the mutation of the virus.

The new variant (UK variant) of SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, has been rapidly spreading across the world, including neighbouring India.

Bhutanese experts say that the current outbreak in the country could also be due to a different strain.

The rate of transmission of the infection this time is observed to be very high compared to the past infection’s rate and pattern. People of all ages, including infants as young as 2.5 months, have contracted the virus this time.

The concern is that whether the vaccines that have been developed so far would be effective against the new strain of the virus.

World Health Organisation’s (WHO) country representative, Dr Rui Paulo de Jesus, said that viruses by nature tend to mutate and at times the newer strain can be less effective and vise-versa.

“The new strain of virus reported in the media seems to be more infectious. But the WHO is reviewing the data and good thing is, so far there is no indication that the new strain leads to a more severe form of the disease.”

He said that the WHO was monitoring the evolving situation closely and would inform in case of significant findings.

In terms of effectiveness of vaccines against the new strain, Dr Rui said: “While it’s early to make any concrete conclusion, our experience with other vaccines such as the ones for polio, measles and yellow fever, show that vaccines have maintained their high effectiveness over decades despite mutations in the viruses.”

He said that for Bhutan, people should continue to follow the proven public health interventions of washing hands, wearing face masks, and maintaining physical distancing, which would work irrespective of the type of strain of virus.

Dr Rui added that despite the outbreak of the virus in various locations, Bhutan has responded ‘exceptionally well’. “Additional flu clinics have been set up quickly in order to facilitate wide reach of testing,” he said. “Definitely, the first lockdown has provided us the experience to manage it more efficiently and strategically this time.”