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Health experts fear new strain might spread

ISLAMABAD: Exactly a year after Covid-19 emerged in China, the virus has changed its characteristics and become more transmissible, raising concerns among health experts who fear that it might spread throughout the world from the UK.

However, they believe that the vaccines launched recently will be effective against the new strain as most of them target the spike protein. They said the variant was more transmissible but fortunately not virulent.

Ministry of National Health Services spokesperson Sajid Shah said so far no case of the new strain had been reported in Pakistan and claimed that the National Institute of Health was capable of identifying it from samples.

The UK reported detection of a new strain of SA RS-COV-2 (VUI-202012/01) which was more transmissible than other previously known strains. In light of this finding, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) had ordered suspension of flight operation with the UK and issued new guidelines for passengers arriving from Britain or those Pakistanis who will arrive in the coming days.

University of Health Sciences ViceChancellor Dr Javed Akram, who is also member of the Scientific Task Force on Covid-19, told Dawn that it was not total mutation and therefore should be considered a variant of the virus.

`The virus initially started changing in South Africa and then reached Australia, Italy and finally completely changed in the UK due to which its transmissibility increased by 70pc.

Moreover its vulnerability towards younger people has also risen due to which infection ratio among children up to 10 years and above has also increased,` he said.`I fear the virus was warming up in 2020 and will play havoc in 2021. Despite all the precautions in China, as it initially emerged in Wuhan, the virus spread across the globe. The new strain will also spread as the world has become a global village. I believe the new strain has already reached a number of countries as UK is one of the busiest destinations,` he added.

Dr Akram urged people to avoid unnecessary movement, attending marriages, public meetings and functions because it would increase chances of infection, adding that herd immunity was the best shield against the virus and would be achieved once 70pc population was vaccinated.

Replying to a question, he said the vaccine would be effective and there would be no needto make another one as most of the vaccines were prepared against the spike proteins which the new variant also had.

Pakistan Medical Association Secretary General Dr Qaisar Sajjad told Dawn that people need to understand the SARS virus keeps changing itself either it becomes weak or lethal.

`The new strain`s transmissibility has increased. Earlier it used to fall on the ground at a distance of within three feet which was why it was suggested to keep a distance of six feet. I fear the new strain was travelling up to six feet which was why it was being claimed the second wave was more lethal. Even in Pakistan I have observed that a number of doctors died within three to four days after contracting the virus. We have lost 154 doctors,` he said.

Dr Sajjad suggested that virology labs and hospitals dedicated for treatment of infectious diseases should be established in all provinces.

Microbiologist Prof Dr Javaid Usman told Dawn that compared to deoxyribonucleic acid virus, ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus had 100 times more tendency to mutate.

`As Covid-19 is also RNA virus, it will keep changing itself. The new change has made it more transmissible but fortunately not virulent. I believe the vaccine will be as effective against the new strain as it is against the previ-ous one. However, people should reduce movement and avoid going to crowded places as they were amplification points,` Dr Usman said.

Meanwhile the World Health Organisation, in an of ficial statement, stated that initial analysis indicated that the variant may spread more readily between people. Investigations were ongoing to determine if that variant was associated with any changes in the severity of symptoms, antibody response or vaccine efficacy.

`A total of 1,108 cases infected with SARSCoV-2 have been detected in the UK as of Dec 13, 2020. The variant was picked up as part of an epidemiological and virological investigation initiated earlier in December 2020 following an unexpected rise in Covid-19 cases in South East England. It was characterised by a more than three-fold increase in the 14-day case notification rate from epidemiological week 41 to week 50 (October 5 to December 13). On average, between 5-10pc of all SARSCoV-2 viruses have routinely been sequenced in the UK and 4pc routinely sequenced in South East England since the beginning of the pandemic. Most Covid-19 cases f rom whom this variant has been identified have occurred in people under 60 years of age,` it stated.

Meanwhile according to data released by the NCOC, 82 deaths and 1,704 cases were reportedin a single day on Tuesday.

The data of ventilators showed that 52pc of the ventilators allocated for Covid-19 patients were occupied in Multan, 39pc in Islamabad, 31pc in Lahore and 27pc in Peshawar. The number of active cases has reached 40,261.

Casualties in twin cities Three persons lost their lives and another 234 contracted the virus in the twin cities on Tuesday.

According to of ficials of the capital administration, two deaths were reported in Islamabad while 159 people were infected. The deceased were males and were in the age groups of 0-9 and 10-19. Since the outbreak of coronavirus in the capital, these were the first deaths reported in these age brackets,the ofhcials said,adding that the patients died at Pims and IHTIC.

During the last 24 hours, 4,663 tests were conducted. According to the breakdown, 20 cases were reported from Tarlai, followed by 15 from DHA, 11 from E-11, 10 from F-8, nine from G-11, eight each from Bahria Town and G-6, seven from G-8, six each from Bhara Kahu and G-10, five each from PWD, I-8, G-7 and F-11, four each from Rawat and F-6 and three each from Soan Garden, I-16, G-9 and Jinnah Garden.In Rawalpindi, one person succumbed to the virus while 75 more tested positive as 83 patients were discharged from hospitals after recovering.

Israrul Haq, 73, from Gujar Khan, was admitted to Rawalpindi Institute of Urology on Dec 19 where he died on Tuesday.

A total of 75 cases surfaced out of which 62 were from Rawalpindi district and 13 from elsewhere.

At present, there are 854 active patients in the district with 188 under treatment in hospitals and 666 home isolated. Since March, there have been 12,509 confirmed patients in Rawalpindi district out of whom 11,148 recovered and 507 lost their lives.

Commissioner retired Capt Mohammad Mehmood told Dawn that the number of Covid-19 patients had decreased in the last two days, though the figure was still high compared to the last three months.

He said the district administration had expedited its campaign to implement the standard operating procedures (SOPs)in public places.

`All shops and plazas will be sealed if traders and visitors were found violating SoPs,` he said, adding that the provincial government had directed the relevant authorities to ensure SOPs were enforced in public transport as well.

Mr Mehmood said there was no shortage of beds as a total of 445 beds were available in five government-run and field hospitals and 230 beds had oxygen f acility.

As many as 46 ventilators were also available in the hospitals.He said coronavirus positive patients were being treated in Holy Family Hospital which had 100 beds, Rawalpindi Institute of Urology had 279 beds, Benazir Bhutto Hospital, 60 beds, District Headquarters Hospital, six beds and Red Crescent Hospital had 120 beds.

Attock Three persons died of Covid-19 and 17 others contracted the virus in Attock on Tuesday.

According to sources in the health department, Mohammad Khan, 67, a resident of Attock, Naheed Akhtar, 35 and Mohammad Naeem, 51, from Jand lost their lives to the virus.

With the detection of new cases, the tally has reached 987.

A total of 10 patients belonged to Fatehjang, four to Attock and three to Hazro. The number of active patients in the district stands at 172.On the other hand, Taxila reported 12 new infections af ter which the total figure rose to 890.

Deputy District Health Officer Dr Sara Qadeer confirmed that among the new patients, six belonged to different wards of Wah including Lalarukh, New City and Model Town, four were from the rural areas while two from the urban areas of Taxila. She said there were 286 active patientsin the city.

Additional reporting by Amjad Iqbal