With the Covid-19 situation deteriorating in India, experts in Bangladesh have suggested closing the borders with the neighbouring country to contain the spread of a new and potentially more transmissible variant of the virus.
In a meeting Tuesday, the National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC) on Covid-19 also recommended that the borders should not reopen until the situation in India improves.
"We have suggested that the government seal off the borders with India right away as the situation there is grim," Prof Nazrul Islam, a member of the NTAC, told The Daily Star.
"If the government does not close the border completely, it must ensure institutional quarantine for all returnees from India," he said.
The new variant, which has a so-called double mutation, is reported to be fuelling India's second wave of coronavirus cases that has made it the world's second worst Covid-hit country, surpassing Brazil, after the US.
India has reported more than 14.5 million Covid-19 cases so far and more than 175,600 fatalities.
The new variant, called B.1.617, was initially detected in India with two mutations -- the E484Q and L452R. It was first reported late last year by a scientist in India and more details were presented before the WHO recently.
Viruses mutate all the time, as part of evolutionary biology. Some mutations weaken the virus while others may make it stronger, enabling it to proliferate faster or cause more infections.
India's health ministry first acknowledged the presence of a "double mutant" virus at the end of March.
Reuters reported that India reported the world's highest daily tally of coronavirus infections for a second day yesterday, surpassing 330,000 new cases, as it struggles with a health system overwhelmed by patients.
Deaths in the past 24 hours also jumped to a record 2,263, the health ministry said, while officials across northern and western India, including the capital, New Delhi, warned most hospitals were full and running out of oxygen, it added.
The double mutation has been found in several countries like Australia, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Namibia, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and the US, according to an April 16 statement from the Indian government. "Higher transmissibility of this variant has not been established yet," it said.
Meanwhile, officials of the health directorate in Bangladesh made similar suggestions to the government about imposing restrictions on the borders.
Dr ABM Khurshid Alam, director general of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), said, "We have sent our recommendations to the ministries concerned of the government. To avoid any further disaster, the borders with India should be closed now."
However, the decision must come from the government's high-ups, he said.
DGHS sources said 610 people entered Bangladesh from India through the Benapole border yesterday.
When asked whether such a double mutant was found in the country, Mushtaq Hossain, an adviser to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), said, "It is not unlikely as people cross the border frequently. But we have to stress on genome sequencing."
The noted epidemiologist said genome sequencing should be done rigorously to see which variants were behind the recent surge in Covid cases.
Iqbal Arsalan, another member of the NTAC, said the government should take strict measures to guard against the "Indian variant".
He also said the meeting on Tuesday also discussed ways of finding alternative sources of vaccine.