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May 17, 2021

Coronavirus: ‘No proof triple mutant from India reached Pakistan’

File photo of COVID-19 virus.

KARACHI: No evidence is available if the ‘triple mutant Covid variant from India’ or B.1.617.2 has managed to reach Pakistan. All possible measures, including ‘reduced inbound travel’, testing on arrival at airports and quarantine for those tested positive are in place to keep the deadly variant at bay, the country’s top health officials said on Sunday.

“We have reduced inbound air traffic by 80 percent and we are asking all passengers to get tested before boarding while they are also being tested on arrival. We are keeping those testing positive in quarantine to ensure the variant dubbed as triple mutant or Indian variant does not manage to get into Pakistan,” Special Assistant to Prime Minister (SAPM) on Health Dr. Faisal Sultan told The News.

Several health experts are urging the government to ban all direct or indirect flights from the United Kingdom as well as Gulf states to prevent the entry of B.1.617.2 or Indian variant into Pakistan, which has spread to around 50 countries in the world and now declared a ‘variant of concern’ and a global health risk by the World Health Organization (WHO).

When asked if he was sure that the Indian variant was not present and spreading in Pakistan, Dr. Faisal Sultan said: “We don't have documentation. Yet, to exclude anything in a country of 220 million is impossible”, but added that all possible measures were being adopted, which include testing all the passengers on arrival, not depending on pre-tests.

According to him, Pakistan had approached Thailand’s health authorities through the International Health Regulations (IHR) mechanism to seek details of a family, who they had claimed contracted the Indian variant from Pakistan but added that so far the Thai authorities had not provided any details to Pakistan.

Commenting on easing restrictions in the country from Monday, he reiterated that there was no room for complacency at the moment as the positivity ratio was still very high in some cities and added that educational institutions had still not been opened to reduce transmission in the country.

Director General Health Dr Rana Muhammad Safdar was also of the opinion that the Indian variant had not managed to reach Pakistan yet but warned that it was ‘just a matter of time’ before it spreads to most of the countries in the world, including Pakistan.

“We have not seen the triple mutant or B.1.617.2 yet in Pakistan so far largely due to natural travel barrier. But risk is enormous as this variant has already spread to almost 50 countries, including our region. The pace at which it is spreading is alarming. For all countries, it's just a matter of time”, Dr. Rana Safdar said.

Responding to a query, Dr. Safdar, who is an expert of emerging infectious diseases, further said: “We cannot let our guards down. All potential options of slowing down the transmission through strict enforcement of NPIs (Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions) and creating strong immunity wall by quickly vaccinating all vulnerable populations gives us the best chance of life normalization and a safer exit from the pandemic”.

He, however, claimed that a new study out of Oxford confirms current coronavirus vaccines work well against B.1.617.2 variant. “AstraZeneca and Pfizer doses still create enough antibodies to neutralize B.1.617.2 and significantly diminish the risk of hospitalization and death. Researchers found B.1.617.2 is not as vaccine resistant as B.1.351 (South Africa) and reacts like B.1.1.7 and P.1. (Brazil) variants”, he added.

Dr. Saeed Khan, a senior molecular scientist associated with Dow University of Health Sciences (DUHS), Karachi, said there is an urgent need to take all possible steps not to allow this variant coming to Pakistan. He warned that ‘otherwise it may invite the pandemic again from the beginning with more severe consequences”.

“We have not seen the Indian variant on our soil as we are not conducting the genome sequencing like the British or even like the Indians. We at DUHS are working on preparing a PCR kit capable of identifying this variant too. If we find out that this variant is present in any sample through PCR testing, we can conduct genome sequencing of that particular sample for confirming it," Dr. Saeed Khan added.