The good news is that the latest COVID-19 outbreaks in the country have been contained. Better news is that the vaccines have and are still arriving. The bad news is that the Coronavirus is mutating speedily with two new variants so far-the UK strain (Kent) variant and the South African variant with the N501Y mutation (otherwise the two are not similar) and the subsequent mutation from the UK variant, the E484K.
Some scientists argue that there are 4,000 variants around the world by now but others say that these are just mutations that emerge and disappear continuously while variants describe viruses with mutations that are transmitting in the general population and that the number of variants is just two to three so far.
Though it remains a tad suspicious why the government has not cleared doubts on the COVID-test samples collected recently and were sent abroad, we give them the benefit of doubt. Going by the highly transmissible nature of the mass outbreak, what could we possibly conclude about the nature of the virus? Could it be the new strain?
The UK has adopted measures like urgent testing for the Kent variant. But E484K was detected only in 11 samples out of 200,000. Scientists have concluded that mutations may reduce vaccine effectiveness (the E484K mutant evades antibodies) though the vaccine from Moderna still proves effective against new strains albeit with reduced strength and for a shorter time period.
So the strategy right now is to keep the number of COVID-19 cases down to prevent further mutations, otherwise if the virus continues to spread, it will evolve and ultimately the situation will become a melting pot for emerging variants.
While we know that for now Bhutan has more or less “swept” the vulnerable regions in the country off the virus, and this by default would help prevent mutations, the authorities must remain vigilant on the emergence of new strains.
Though right now, the idea of new COVID-strains spreading in Bhutan seems pretty far-fetched, there is nothing like being too careful in a situation that demands it. Last heard, around 60 countries across the world had detected the UK variant.
The virus has no respect for country, people or persons. We are all in this together. The global community including Bhutan is in this together. So the right thing to do right now is try to prevent any further outbreaks or transmission by taking the vaccine (as deemed eligible), and following health protocol like washing hands, using face masks, avoiding crowds and social distancing.
The fortnightly COVID-test to be conducted on frontline responders is also a good idea. We would be constantly updating on any possible virus infections and thus keeping tabs on new or peculiar developments.
One more possibility the authorities could explore is establishing a testing unit that can confirm new strains of the virus if they develop because if they do, we definitely do not want to lose time. It might cost resources, even a hefty capital, but it would be a good investment in these pandemic times. And at the end, it could be even cheaper than sending the test samples all the way to India or Bangkok. We would also be pre-emptying risks.
We have gained quite a lot of experience on COVID-preparedness and responsiveness. But as time flies by, and circumstances change, we need to adapt our responses and strategies too. We need to accrue new knowledge, tools, and tactics. We need to be dynamic.
The only constant is change. Let us be constant in our efforts to keep the virus at bay.