COVID cases are surging after emergence of omicron in Bangladesh. Is there a link?

While only 10 cases of the new strain have been confirmed so far, it has sparked fears of another devastating wave of infections amid the pandemic.

However, experts say it is still too early to ascertain if the omicron variant is causing the uptick in the infection rate.

They believe the situation will become clearer over the coming weeks but stressed the need for strict compliance with health directives.

Bangladesh was pulverised by the emergence of the delta variant in 2021. Originating in neighbouring India, the deadly strain of COVID-19 spread like wildfire across the country, triggering a crisis of oxygen supplies amid soaring cases and deaths.

After the delta variant made its way across the border to Bangladesh, the South Asian country endured its worst spell of the pandemic between June and August 2021 as cases and deaths hit record highs.

But just as the dark clouds seemed to be clearing, the emergence of omicron cast an ominous shadow over the country, as well as the rest of the world, heading into 2022.

Omicron was first discovered in South Africa and the World Health Organization flagged soon it as the “variant of concern”. The variant’s discovery was swiftly followed by the identification of cases across the globe and it is now believed to be the dominant strain worldwide.

In India, there has been a sharp rise in cases, with the federal health ministry on Monday reporting 33,750 new infections and 123 deaths.

Omicron is also raising concerns with the Indian government confirming 1,700 cases of the variant, 175 of which were identified in the last 24 hours.

India’s COVID caseload has surged by 130,000 in the last seven days, the biggest weekly jump in three months.

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Meanwhile, authorities in Pakistan said it has “clear evidence now of a beginning of another COVID wave” after reporting over 700 cases in a single day – its highest tally in two months, as authorities warned of a fifth wave of infections and made preparations to try to contain omicron.

The new variant lurked behind rising infections in Tokyo where new cases rose to 103, the highest since Oct 8.

In South Korea, two people, who posthumously tested positive for the highly contagious variant of the coronavirus, appear to be the first such reported deaths in the country, Yonhap news agency reported on Monday.

Over 4,000 flights were cancelled around the world on Sunday, more than half of them US flights, adding to the toll of holiday week travel disruptions due to adverse weather and soaring Omicron-driven cases.

Australia’s government said the milder impact of the new COVID strain meant the country could push ahead with plans to reopen the economy even as new infections hit a record of more than 37,000 and the number of people hospitalised rose.

Record daily case numbers were reported on Monday in the states of Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania, as well as the Australian Capital Territory.

Tight curbs have been set in countries in Europe. The risk of hospitalisation with omicron is about one-third that of the Delta variant, according to British analysis of more than a million cases of both types in the weeks leading up to the New Year.

Bangladesh found its first omicron cases on Dec 9 in two women cricketers who returned from Zimbabwe. Eight more cases were identified in late December — all of whom are residents of Dhaka.

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The rate of COVID transmission has also been rising in the country. On Monday, the government reported 674 new cases, for a positivity rate of 3.37 percent. The last time 600-plus cases were reported was on Oct 6, while a higher infection rate was recorded on Oct 2 at 3.41 percent.

The authorities identified as many as 7,542 cases in November, but the number surged to 9,255 in December – a 22.71 percent leap over the previous month.

Over the last week, the number of cases has increased by 48 percent while deaths are also up 42 percent. The daily positivity rate has also crept past 3 percent for the first time in three months.

Even though its symptoms are less severe, the concern among scientists is that omicron may be spreading faster than delta. The fears were compounded by reports that the variant can evade the immune protection conferred by COVID-19 vaccines.

The ongoing situation prompted Health Minister Zahid Maleque to convene an emergency inter-ministerial meeting at the Secretariat on Monday to discuss ways to avert another crisis.

He has since announced plans to enforce a mask mandate and require citizens to show proof of vaccination to dine in restaurants.

However, local transmission of omicron may not be fully underway yet. Dr Meerjady Sabrina Flora, additional director general at the health directorate, said people infected with the variant had either arrived from overseas or came into contact with those who did.

Sabrina, however, does not believe omicron is causing the spike in infections.

“We haven’t found too many omicron cases just yet. The way we are holding programmes is weakening the essentials of public safety. This is behind the spike in infections.”

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Dr ASM Alamgir, chief scientific officer at the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research or IEDCR, said the delta variant is still “predominant” in the country.

“We’ve a handful of omicron cases now. But when omicron becomes prevalent, all the cases we find will be of the variant. This is the case in Bangladesh and other South Asian countries alike. Its spread is still sporadic in our region.”

“But it will spread here, too. We might see that a week or two later,” he said.

Alamgir also believes the indifference towards health rules is triggering a rise in infections.

“People are hosting parties, open-air concerts and indoor ones. No one is following health rules. Wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining physical distance are necessary.”

Prof Samir Kumar Saha, executive director of Child Health Research Foundation, was of the same opinion.

“Omicron will arrive, it’s pretty straightforward. There are a few cases now but that will change quickly as many in India are being diagnosed with the disease. It is also spreading rapidly in Europe and the United States.”

However, he thinks the odds of the variant causing critical cases are low.

“That’s a positive. But we should not be sure of anything. It’ll spread fast when it does and the number of cases can soar at any time.

“I’d say we are worried about omicron but we shouldn’t panic. We can keep it at bay if we are careful.”

Bangladesh recorded its first COVID-19 case on Mar 8, 2020. More than 1.58 million people have tested positive for the disease so far while 28,081 people have died.

[With details from Reuters]

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