Another coronavirus variant rears its head in Pakistan



Just when Pakistan had all but forgotten about the novel coronavirus, the latest variant of the infectious disease has been detected in the country, which poses a significant threat to the perpetually overwhelmed healthcare infrastructure of the land.

While provincial health departments have just sprung into action to combat the spread of the COVID-19 JN.1 variant, which is already spreading vigorously across the United States of America, they might not have the required infrastructure to curtail the virus successfully.

For instance, the Spokesman of the Sindh Health Department informed the Express Tribune that the provincial capital, Karachi, did not have COVID-19 vaccines on hand since October of 2023. “Recently, 2 passengers who arrived at Karachi Airport have tested positive for the JN. 1 variant of the infectious disease. In light of this rising trend, we are hoping that the federal government dispatches vaccines to us soon,” he explained.

Similarly, as per health department sources in Punjab, who spoke with the Express Tribune on condition of anonymity, no official guidelines have been issued for mandatory testing as of yet in the province. “Only 1 person has been diagnosed with the new variant so far in the province but in the absence of designated testing points at coronavirus hotspots like the airport, the variant might spread,” the source cautioned.

However, in stark contrast to the country’s most populous province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) claims that it is well prepared. Dr Irshad Roghani, Director of the Public Health Department, when quizzed about the spread of the coronavirus, said that teams of the health department were present at the Peshawar Airport to test for the new variant. “There are no cases in K-P right now and even if there were, we are prepared to combat the disease,” assured Dr Roghani.

Although Dr Roghani’s confidence in the provincial health department is more profound than that of his peers at other provincial departments, Dr Abdul Waheed Rajput, Director of the Sindh Infectious Disease Hospital, believes that the country as a whole is not ready to combat another wave of the coronavirus.

“For the past two years people across the country have abandoned all preventive measures against the superspreader. Now for them to adopt precautionary measures like those being enforced by the government in the lockdown period would be a tall ask,” asserted Dr Rajput.

Read: WHO sees ‘incredibly low’ Covid, flu vaccination rates as cases surge

Since precautionary measures would be hard to enforce and vaccines are unavailable, Dr Rajput feels that the cold weather will aid the spread of the JN. 1 variant, especially in the elderly and immunocompromised segment of the populace.

Therefore, people should be on alert if they have symptoms like high fever, cold, cough, chest congestion, and shortness of breath, according to Dr Pir Ghulam Nabi Shah Jilani, Medical Superintendent (MS) of the Sindh Government Hospital, Saudabad. “I would also suggest that people should start masking up and practise social distancing. Most importantly, I would recommend people to get a booster dose immediately,” implored Dr Jilani.

However, booster doses are not as readily available anywhere in the country presently. According to the focal person on the coronavirus for the Punjab Health Department, Dr. Yadullah Ali, currently only the first dose of vaccine is being administered across the province and that too as an emergency for high-risk individuals.

“Similarly, Hajj and Umrah pilgrims and those suffering from respiratory and heart diseases will be prioritised. Only after these groups have been provided for, the second dose of the vaccine will be administered.”

Nevertheless, Dr Ali, was quick to add that Punjab would now start testing for Covid-19’s new variant at the airport and that every district of the province had been directed to increase testing.

As per, Dr Ikram Ullah Khan, an official of the K-P Health Department, the same is being done in the province as well. “The Secretary of the Health Department and other high officials have already directed all the concerned departments to take the new variant seriously,” said Dr Khan.

While it is not clear how the provinces will curtail the spread of the virus without an adequate supply of vaccines, the Director General (DG) Health for Sindh has recently passed similar directions. “We have directed special wards to be established at all DHQs and THQs and will also increase surveillance of COVID-19,” assured the DG while talking to the Express Tribune.

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