Omicron ‘stealth’ variant no cause for alarm yet, but concerns remainDecline in cases comes as respite but experts stress jabs and warn against complacency.
Nepal’s Covid-19 cases have significantly declined over the last few days. Things have almost returned to normal and measures enforced to curb the spread of the virus have been lifted. Experts say this could lead to a sense of complacency, at a time when a number of countries around the world, including China, Hong Kong of China, South Korea, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, Germany and France, have been witnessing a rapid surge in new cases. The BA.2 sublineage of Omicron in particular has been attributed to the recent sharp spikes in new cases in these countries.
Infectious disease experts, virologists as well as epidemiologists in Nepal say while Nepal should not let its guard down, there is no need to worry at this point of time.
Here is what you need to know about the BA.2 sublineage of Omicron and Nepal’s current Covid-19 status.
What is the current coronavirus status in Nepal?
At present, new cases of the coronavirus have declined significantly. On Saturday, only 17 people tested positive for Covid-19. On Sunday, 37 new cases were reported. No death has been reported from the virus in the last nine days. The number of new cases every day is the lowest since the first wave of the pandemic in May 2020. The number of active cases stands at 3,241 throughout the country.
What is the BA.2 sublineage of the Omicron variant?
Omicron, the new variant of the coronavirus, itself is far more infectious than all other previous variants, which led to the third wave in various countries, including Nepal. It is made up of several sublineages and the most common ones are BA.1, and BA.2.BA.3 and B.1.1.529.
Based on available data of transmission, severity, reinfection, diagnostics, therapeutics and impacts of the vaccine, the World Health Organisation, classified the BA.2 sublineage as a variant of concern.
Why is BA.2 considered a ‘stealth’ variant?
Studies show the BA.2 subvariant is more contagious than the BA.1 or any other variant detected so far.
“As the subvariant may also be slightly better at evading immunity than BA.1, which contributes to the rapid spread, it is considered a ‘stealth variant’,” said Dr Prabhat Adhikari, an infectious disease and critical care expert. “The BA.2 sublineage not only displaced the Delta variant but also the BA.1 sublineage.”
Is the BA.2 sublineage present in Nepal?
Yes. This sublineage of the Omicron variant was responsible for the third wave of the pandemic in the country. By the time health authorities realised that the BA.2 was circulating in the country, infection rates had gone up and become uncontrollable.
Health authorities were only looking for the S-gene negative swab samples to verify if the infection was caused by the Omicron variant, BA.2 sublineage was found in S-gene positive swab samples.
“Most of the cases of Covid-19 infection at present are responsible for BA.2 sublineage,” said Dr Runa Jha, director at the National Public Health Laboratory. “The sub-variant of the virus is responsible for the third wave in the country.”
Out of 11 swab samples on which whole-gene sequencing was carried out in Dhulikhel Hospital in February, the BA.2 sublineage was detected in 10.
Is there any chance of a rapid surge in new cases immediately in Nepal?
Experts have ruled that chance out. As the third wave of the pandemic was derived by the BA.2 sublineage of Omicron and thousands of people got infected, there will not be another surge in new cases immediately, they say.
“Scientifically there is no chance of a surge in new cases of infections in the immediate future,” said Dr Sunita Gautam, a molecular biologist. “As the third wave of the pandemic was caused by the BA.2 sublineage, we can safely say the same virus variant will not lead to another massive spike.”
Doctors say a new virus variant should emerge to cause a new surge. According to them, even if the BA.2 sublineage evades the vaccine immunity, the vaccine prevents severity and deaths. And natural immunity made from the BA.2 infection exists for some months, which prevents immediate infection.
What is Nepal’s current vaccine coverage status?
So far, 18,719,122 people, or 64.1 percent of the total population, have been fully vaccinated [they have received either one dose of Janssen or two doses of other vaccines]. The country so far has received 47,882,800 doses of Covid-19 vaccines—AstraZeneca, Vero Cell, Moderna, Janssen and Pfizer-BioNTech.
Is the pandemic over?
Not yet. Doctors say there is every chance of a new surge if a new infectious variant of the virus emerges in any part of the globe. The only thing is at present, the threat is not as large as during the previous waves, according to them.
“Even if the new cases have declined significantly in our country, which is good news for us, time has not come yet to say that the pandemic has gone,” said Dr Biraj Karmacharya, an epidemiologist. “Another wave of the pandemic will not come immediately as many of us have already got infected but that does not mean there won’t be new cases in the future. So it’s better to continue taking precautions.”
What kind of preparation is needed to lessen risk of possible new surge of infections?
Vaccination and health safety protocols.
“The uptake of the booster shots is very low,” said Karmacharya. “As some countries have already started the fourth dose and coverage of the booster is very high in those countries, we should also focus on increasing uptake of the booster shots.”
How many people have taken booster shots so far?
As many as 1,838,183 people have received booster shots, according to the Health Ministry.
What’s the plan for vaccinating children aged 5-11?
The government has decided to inoculate children between five and 11 years old with Covid-19 vaccine. Children between 12 and 17 have been administered the Pfizer-BIoNTech and Moderna vaccines. Authorities say they are planning to procure the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to immunise children aged 5 and 11 years but no deal has been reached so far.