Covid-19: New strains have hit India, other developing nations

Virendra Pandit 

New Delhi: Several developing countries, besides India, are currently in the grip of the second wave of Covid-19, and some isolated Pacific Ocean islands are also receiving their first wave of the pandemic, because of more contagious and virulent strains.

Although not as populated as India and, therefore, nowhere close to the flare-up in scope, the spikes in these countries have been far steeper, which signals the potential danger of an uncontrolled spread, according to media reports on Tuesday.

The situation is “very serious,” according to Ali Mokdad, Chief Strategy Officer for Population Health at the University of Washington. “New variants will require a new vaccine and a booster for those already vaccinated — they will delay the control of the pandemic.”

“All countries are at risk,” said David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “The disease appears to be becoming endemic and will therefore likely remain a risk to all countries for the foreseeable future.”

The increase is mainly because of more contagious virus variants, though complacency and lack of resources to contain the spread have also been cited as reasons.

The newly-afflicted countries range from Laos to Thailand in Southeast Asia, and those bordering India such as Bhutan and Nepal. They have reported significant surges in infections in the past few weeks, mainly because of more contagious virus variants.

Last week, Laos reported a 220-fold jump in infections in a month, while Nepal’s hospitals are full of patients and running of oxygen supplies. In Thailand, 98 percent of new cases are from a more infectious strain of the pathogen, media reported.

“It’s very important to realize that the situation in India can happen anywhere,” said Hans Kluge, the regional director at the World Health Organization for Europe, last week. “This is still a huge challenge.”

In April, Laos saw a whopping 22,000 percent increase, followed by Nepal and Thailand, whose fresh caseloads skyrocketed over 1,000 percent on a month-over-month basis, according to media reports.

Bhutan, Trinidad, and Tobago, Suriname, Cambodia, and Fiji also witnessed the epidemic erupt at a high triple-digit pace.

The abrupt outbreak in Laos — a place that only recorded 60 cases since the start of the pandemic through April 20 and no death to date — shows the challenges facing some of the landlocked nations. Porous borders make it harder to clamp down on illegal crossings though entry is technically banned.

Communist-ruled Laos ordered lockdowns in its capital Vientiane and banned travel between the capital and provinces. It urged neighboring Vietnam for assistance on life-saving resources. Nepal and Bhutan have seen cases erupt, in part due to returning nationals. Nepal, which has identified cases of the new Indian variant, has limited resources to combat the virus.

Thailand, whose tourism industry is already in the doldrums, just reintroduced a two-week mandatory quarantine for all visitors. About 98% of cases in Thailand are of the variant first identified in the U.K., based on a sample of 500 people, Yong Poovorawan, chief of the Center of Excellence in Clinical Virology at Chulalongkorn University, said.

In Cambodia, since the beginning of the current outbreak, over 10,000 locally acquired cases have been detected in more than 20 provinces. The Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is now a “red zone,” or a high-risk outbreak area.

In Sri Lanka, authorities have isolated areas, banned weddings, and meetings and closed cinemas and pubs to cap a record spike following last month’s local New Year festivities.

In the Caribbean, Trinidad and Tobago announced a partial lockdown after the country’s daily cases hit a record high, closing restaurants, malls, and cinemas until late May. The case count in the latest month is about 700% more than the previous month.

Suriname, on the north-eastern coast of South America, reported a 600 percent spike in April over March.

After staying relatively Covid-free because of strict border controls, some of the Pacific island-nations are now seeing their first wave. Cities in the tourist hot spot of Fiji have gone into lockdown after the wider community contracted the virus from the military.

“The recent rise in recorded cases throughout the Pacific reveals how critical it is to not just rely on strong borders but to actually get vaccines into these countries,” said Jonathan Pryke, who heads research on the Pacific region for the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. “India is a shocking warning to this part of the world about how quickly this pandemic can spiral out of control.”



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