A health worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) gear takes a swab sample from a woman to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus at a testing point in Karachi. Photo: AFP/Rizwan Tabassum

PESHAWAR – Pakistan has officially denied the Indian variant of Covid-19 has entered the country, a nationalistic claim refuted by experts who note the country does not have the B1617 kit to detect the highly contagious coronavirus mutation, which is currently rampaging through neighboring India.

Research institutions in Pakistan have detected some “unknown variant” constituting 15% of the country’s total infections that may be the Indian variant, but the lack of specialized testing kits has hampered the identification process.

The Pakistani government last week imposed lockdowns in major parts of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, which had the bulk of deaths and infections. They also called in troops to help civilian agencies implement public safety measures in a bid to stem the record number of deaths in recent days.

Authorities have put virus hotspot areas in Sindh and Baluchistan under either complete or partial lockdowns in the run-up to the Islamic festival Eid-Ul-Fitr, a travel period which marks the end the fasting month of Ramadan.

To stop the Indian variant from entering the country, Pakistan has already banned land and air travel from India and suspended pedestrian movement at the land borders with Afghanistan and Iran to “restrain the import of any new mutation” of the coronavirus.   

From April 23 to May 16, up to 2,908 people died from the virus, including 74 in the past 24 hours. During the same period, 100,000 new cases of Covid-19 were reported, including 2,300 on May 16. Pakistan reported a total of 880,362 cases, with 792,522 recovering and 19,617 deaths as of May 16.

Commuters make their way through a partially deserted street during a nine-day nationwide lockdown in Karachi on May 15, 2021. Photo: AFP/Rizwan Tabassum

‘Out of the question’

Last week, health authorities in Thailand claimed to have found the Indian variant in a Thai woman and her four-year-old son who has been in state quarantine since arriving from Pakistan.

Reacting to the Thai claim, Asad Umar, chairman of the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) and federal minister for planning and development, said it was “out of the question” that two Thai nationals contracted the Indian B1617 variant from Pakistan as it was not present in the country.

Talking to the media, Umar said Pakistan had not reported finding a single case of the Indian variant.

Dr Muhammad Iqbal Chaudhry, director at the International Centre for Chemical and Biological Sciences (ICCBS), University of Karachi, told Asia Times that the variant hitting neighboring India had not yet been detected in Pakistan because the kits needed to detect the virus – known as B1617 – were not available in the country.

Chaudhry said the Indian variant might already have infected the country given the close interaction of the two countries’ diasporas in Gulf states. The ICCBS works on Covid-19 samples and provides its findings and data to the government.

He said the kits identifying the Indian variant would soon be available and then experts would be in a position to know if the Indian strain had reached the country.

“Almost 60% to 70% of coronavirus infection is carried out by the UK variant, which was only 2% in January last. The UK mutation known as B117 was first detected in Britain late last year,” Chaudhry maintained.

“This variant is more transmissible than others. However, if it is also more deadly is yet to be established.”

People at a marketplace during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr amid a nine-day to curb the spread of Covid-19 in Rawalpindi on May 12, 2021. Photo: AFP/Farooq Naeem

‘Unknown mutation’

He said so far the Brazilian and South African variants had been detected in Pakistan, along with an “unknown mutation” whose identity has not yet been ascertained.

“The government’s corona testing figures show a downward revision from 65,000 last month to 35,000 during the past couple of weeks. It may be a tactic to keep the pressure off the overwhelming of hospitals and minimize the oxygen requirements that was reaching the optimal level last month,” Dr Muhammad Khizer Hayat, chairman of the Young Doctors Association, Punjab (YDAP), told Asia Times. 

He said government data revealed that positivity had come down from 11% in April to 7.5% in the current month, which showed that active cases in the country were on the decline.

“The situation was quite alarming in the country last month when the number of patients visiting healthcare units abruptly surged, putting pressure on the oxygen supply and healthcare facilities. It has now been stabilized,” Khizer said.

“The people followed the corona protocol at this Eid festival, which helped contain the spread of the infection. The government now should keep on shutting down markets and public places and continue to implement the Standing Operation Procedures (SOPs) to avoid a catastrophe of the Indian level,” Khizar added.

When it comes to things like Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the doctors fighting the pandemic, he said the government had not provided equipment at primary and secondary healthcare departments.

Drop in testing

“Young Doctors Association Punjab is keeping an eye on all the factors that are happening at the moment. The government’s priorities include neither doctors nor patients,” he added.

However, Dr Chaudhry attributed the drop in testing and faulty sampling to the lower positivity rates in the country, saying the number of tests did not conform with the country’s population.

“The testing of symptomatic or asymptomatic patients brings a different ratio of positivity. If you were conducting tests on asymptomatic people like teachers or people in other essential services, the ratio would come down drastically as compared to the symptomatic population,” he said.

A teacher (L) checks the body temperature of a student wearing facemask upon her arrival at the Islamabad Model College for Girls in Islamabad on January 18, 2021. Photo: AFP/ Aamir Qureshi

“Government data would not accurately indicate the exact ratio of positivity unless they certify that tests are being conducted on the asymptomatic population,” Chaudhry added, saying government departments should increase the testing on asymptomatic patients to arrive at a factual ratio of positivity.

The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC) last week warned that the “coronavirus was exploding in Asia and the Pacific with over 5.9 million new confirmed infections in the past two weeks, more than in all other regions combined.”

The IFRC observed that the new surge was pushing hospitals and health systems to the brink of collapse. The World Health Organization (WHO) also cautioned Asia-Pacific countries, saying the catastrophic Indian variant had been detected in at least 44 countries and called for more studies to understand its severity and propensity to cause reinfections.