India’s neighbors country on alert for ‘double mutant’ COVID variant.
As India’s second wave of coronavirus increases across the country, neighbors like Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are also reporting a recent surge in new cases.
This has led the authorities in these countries to close borders and restrict travel. However, some of these borders are porous, and many people cross from one place to another every day.
Scientists are examining whether a new “double mutant” coronavirus variant is driving the current outbreak in India.
The variant, called B.1.617 and described as a “super mutation,” was initially detected in India and has now been found in at least 17 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO has said that preliminary modeling based on genetic sequencing showed that B.1.617 could be more transmissible.
“This virus does not respect national borders and does not need a passport. The double mutant shows that it is more infectious than other circulating variants in India, suggesting possible increased transmissibility, ”Jacob John, an Indian virologist, told DW.
COVID cases on the rise in Nepal
Nepal, with a population of more than 24 million people, shares a border with five northern Indian states: Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Sikkim.
In February, Nepal’s COVID infection rate hovered between 150 and 200 new cases a day.
Over the past two weeks, Nepal has reported thousands of new COVID cases every day, which is in line with the current increase in India.
“It’s definitely scary, and we are a small country. Right now, we are seeing almost 4,000 to 5,000 cases across the country, and many of the cases are in Lumbini province. [which shares a border with India]” Ranjeet Baral, a Nepalese doctor, told DW from Kathmandu.
An estimated 6 million Nepalese live and work in India, and given the porous nature of the borders, people cross frequently.
The border was closed for some time during the closure of India last year but has since been reopened.
Doctors in Nepal say that although death rates have been relatively low so far, COVID-19 infection rates have been high among young people, who are more likely to spread the virus.
“Our health infrastructure has expanded and we are running out of beds. Epidemiologists have detected the Indian variant and we could be facing a possible crisis, ”said Baral.
Bangladesh closes borders, Pakistan on alert
Similarly, sparks from India’s wildfire pandemic appear to have landed in Bangladesh to the east. Authorities have restricted the movement of people by closing the borders for two weeks.
The Bangladesh National Technical Advisory Committee on COVID-19 also recommended that the borders not be reopened until the situation in India improves.
The committee stressed that the government must take strict measures to protect itself against the “Indian variant.”
“The higher authorities have decided to close the borders for two weeks. Overland routes to India will be closed from April 26, ”Bangladeshi Interior Minister Asaduzzamman Khan Kamal recently told reporters in Dhaka.
From March 15, when COVID-19 infections in Bangladesh began an upward trend, to April 28, new cases in the country rose to more than 194,446. Currently, the total number of cases in Bangladesh stands at more than 757,000.
To try to control the current increase, the country is conducting about 35,000 tests every day.
Gautam Menon, a distinguished Indian biologist, told DW that given the amount of travel between India and its neighbors, it was “only a matter of time” before a more communicable variant prevalent in India crossed the borders.
“Border closures, like the one Bangladesh, has done recently, would help in the short term and are advisable,” Menon said.
To the west, cases have also increased in Pakistan since the beginning of March, coinciding with the outbreak of the second increase in India.
It is not yet known whether the Indian variant has been reported in any of the new infections. Travel from India to Pakistan has been banned since April 19.
“Viruses will cross borders when people cross borders. It doesn’t surprise me that we are seeing an increase in our neighborhood, ”Shahid Jameel, a virologist, told DW.
Scientists were ‘caught off guard’
India’s official scientific adviser K Vijay Raghavan admitted for the first time that the ferocity of the second wave had taken everyone by surprise, including the scientific community. He added that the appearance of new variants was certainly a factor.
“There is evidence of faster transmission variants contributing to the increase,” Raghavan told the Indian Express newspaper in an interview.
Raghavan added that B.1.617 was associated with outbreaks in the western state of Maharashtra and transmissibility increased after the double mutant variant appeared.
Epidemiologists are concerned that the spread of the pandemic has created conditions in which SARS-CoV-2 has been able to mutate and develop more virulent and potentially vaccine-resistant variants.
It is for this reason that a group of more than 200 scientists and medical researchers recently asked Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to release data on the patterns and severity of COVID-19 infections.
There is concern that the government may be withholding information on infection rates that could help learn more about how the pandemic is evolving.