New strain, new worry | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 03, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:23 AM, January 03, 2021

New strain, new worry

Experts say RT-PCR testing in Bangladesh hardly capable of detecting new Covid strain

The RT-PCR tests done to diagnose coronavirus infections in Bangladesh are not likely to detect the new strain identified in the UK. On top of that, no one can say for sure if the new variant is similar to the ones found here in Bangladesh.

Eminent experts Bijon Kumar Sil and Khandaker Mehedi Akram said the number of new cases might rise if the new strain identified in the UK reaches Bangladesh.

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Both of them are currently researching the mutation of coronavirus -- Sil in Singapore and Akram in the UK.

Three members of the government's advisory committee on coronavirus response recently told The Daily Star that they did not know whether the country's RT-PCR testing facilities have the capacity to detect the new strain.

"Currently, the RT-PCR tests are doing two-gene diagnosis. This system may not detect all the mutations of coronavirus. The chances that the new strain can be detected in the existing system are slight. It is being discussed whether to change the RT-PCR testing," said Sahana Banu, head of virology at Dhaka Medical College and Hospital.

Sil and Akram also agree that it will take three-gene tests to know whether the new strain is present in Bangladesh. But the RT-PCR facilities in Bangladesh are not capable of three-gene tests.

The country should arrange the facilities to do three-gene tests. Besides, genome sequencing of at least five out of every 100 samples should be done, they added.

The new strain was identified in London and Kent where many Bangladeshis live and they often travel to Bangladesh, they added.

Akran said, "The three-gene test and genome sequencing have been done in the European Union and UK to detect the new strain."

Sil said, "The virus is continuously changing its character. The virus found in Wuhan of China is not similar to the ones currently found all over the world. It has changed its spike protein in the new strain. Strangely, mutation or changes have been made in 17 places of spike protein."

Akram said, "There are dissimilarities between the strains in the UK and Bangladesh. Still, Bangladesh should take the issue seriously as flights between the UK and Bangladesh are still in operation.

"Normally, the strength of a virus is measured by two indicators -- its spread and infection capabilities. We found the new strain is 70 more contagious. However, it is yet to be proved whether the new strain is deadlier than the previous one. Research is going on and the result will be known soon. Since its capacity to spread is higher, the risk is also higher."

Asked whether the vaccine is effective against the new strain, Sil said," The vaccines have been developed targeting the spike proteins that have changed in the new strain. So, they might turn out to be less effective. It is yet to be proven whether these vaccines are effective against the new strain. Hopefully, it will be known in seven to 10 days.

Akram said, "It is not proven whether people aged below 18 are at risk of being infected by the new strain. The vaccine trials did not include this age group. New trials should be done to check whether the vaccines are effective for people aged under 18."

At least 50 countries have suspended flight operations with the UK after the new strain was identified. It has already spread in Australia and Denmark.

Some people recently travelled from the UK to Tokyo after they tested negative for coronavirus. But tests in Tokyo detected the strain in them.

Several new strains have been identified in some Indian states, including Kolkata, in people who came from the UK.

Sil and Akram agree that the equipment needed for three-gene tests should be collected by the authorities immediately.

They added that the government should make sure everyone wears a mask, especially since there are uncertainties over how long it will take for the vaccine to arrive in Bangladesh and how many people will get it.

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