ECONOMYNEXT – With 931 cases recorded today, the fifth highest single-day total yet, and the country’s vaccine rollout having hit a dead-end even as hospitals run out of ICUs beds, fears of an uncontrollable surge in COVID-19 in Sri Lanka abound.
The government has decided not to opt for an islandwide lockdown, choosing instead to isolate select areas that record high concentrations of cases and to bank on an increasingly pandemic-fatigued public’s goodwill and cooperation in preventing a crisis.
Army Commander Gen Shavendra Silva, who heads Sri Lanka’s pandemic prevention task force, told reporters today that public gatherings will be banned with immediate effect, among other measures, in an attempt to contain the rapid spread of what experts suspect is a newer, deadlier strain of the virus. Quarantine curfew will be imposed in any area where a considerable number of cases are found, Silva said at an emergency press conference held this afternoon attended by several key officials in Sri Lanka’s fight against COVID-19. The media briefing was called by the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA).
“We were able to contain the spike in cases we observed after the Christmas holidays last year, when daily cases surpassed 900. We do not wish to control the public by imposing strict travel restrictions or islandwide curfews,” the army chief said, noting that Sri Lankans are now sufficiently aware of their duty and responsibility.
He asked the public to cancel any Sinhala & Tamil New Year festivals or trips that they might’ve planned for the coming long weekend (April 24–26).
“If you act intelligently and avoid non-essential travel, we won’t have to go for a lockdown,” he added.
Neelika Malavige, Professor in Microbiology at the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, said the SARS-Cov-02 virus is now confirmed to infect while airborne and not just as droplets.
“We will know what the new strain in Sri Lanka is within the next few days,” Malavige said.
The new variant has the capacity to infect more people than before, and while many cases earlier were asymptomatic, she said, this time even younger people are showing severe symptoms.
“This virus is airborne. If I’m infected and I remove my mask and speak, the virus can enter the surrounding and will be active for 1 ½ hours even after I leave the premises, infecting anyone who walks in after me,” said the professor.
Sri Lanka’s state hospitals have almost run out of intensive care units (ICUs) dedicated to COVID-19 patients as more and more younger cases with severe symptoms are now being admitted regularly.
Commenting on this, Health Services Director General Dr Asela Gunawardena said hospitals still have enough ICU capacity to treat COVID-19 patients but it’s more important that health guidelines are followed in order to avoid infection.
“Previously the symptoms were not very apparent. Now they are much more visible and young people are more likely to develop them,” he said.
Gunawardena said that, unlike before, some people who get infected with the new strain may not show symptoms until after 14 days, meaning the virus’ incubation period has likely changed.
People who are testing positive now develop more breathing difficulties, requiring ICU admission and oxygen, he said.
The Health Services chief warned that if the public does not act responsibly, Sri Lanka’s situation may become as dire as that of India where cases have seen an alarming increase over the past few weeks.
Responding to questions about Sri Lanka’s vaccine shortage, Chief Advisor to the President Lalith Weeratunge who oversees the country’s vaccine rollout said remaining doses of the AstraZeneca-Covishield jab must be administered before they expire in July.
The rollout of the second dose for those who have already received the first will begin May 01, he said.
Sri Lanka has immunised 923,954 people against COVID-19 so far (first dose only) with a total of 1,264,000 Covishield doses that the health services received as a donation from India, through the COVAX facility and as a purchase from the Serum Institute of India.
The government previously announced that some 300,000 remaining doses will be administered as the second shot starting April 19. This did not come to pass.
Authorities started vaccinating Chinese nationals in the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) area on April 05 with the 600,000 doses of the Chinese manufactured Sinopharm vaccine that were donated to Sri Lanka by the Chinese government.
The cabinet of ministers had previously approved the purchase of seven million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine for a sum of USD 69.65 million. The ministers on April 05 approved a proposal to purchase another six million doses at a price of USD 9.95 per dose. Two-hundred thousand doses of the jab were expected in Sri Lanka at the end of the Avurudu holidays. This consignment, too, has yet to arrive.
According to State Pharmaceutical Corporation (SPC) Chairman Dr Prasanna Gunasena, who also spoke at the SLMA press briefing today, the timeline for the arrival of the Russian jab is: 200,000 doses by April , 400,000 by May, 800,000 by June and 1.2 million by July.
Gunasena said Sri Lanka has also signed agreements with the US-based Pfizer Inc. The multinational pharmaceutical giant has communicated to the SPC that between April to June, 35,000 doses will be delivered to Sri Lanka, followed by 105,000 from July to September and 4.8 million from October to December.
In order for Sri Lanka to reach herd immunity, he said, out of a population of 21 million, 13 million should be vaccinated. The funds to this end will be provided by the Asia Development Bank, the World Bank and the government, he added.
According to presidential advisor Weeratunge, 578,933 people in the Western Province have received their first jab.
“From the donation of Sinopharm we received from China, around 4,000-5,000 doses were given to Chinese nationals in the country. No side effects were reported to our doctors,” he said.
Weeratunga said the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) has yet to approve the Chinese jab for emergency use in Sri Lanka and therefore it cannot be administered to locals yet. He expressed confidence, however, that the World Health Organisation (WHO) will give its own approval for the vaccine within the next two weeks.
“Of the remaining AstraZeneca doses, 91,000 will expire by June 24; and by July 16, another 265,000 will have expired. We’ll have to start giving the second shot before that,” he said.
The health ministry was on the receiving end of much criticism for allegedly discarding a previously approved priority list for vaccination, a list that had put Sri Lankans over the age of 60 above other categories, below frontline workers. According to Weeratunge, 300,614 people over the age of 60 have received their first shot so far.
Meanwhile, President of the Association of Government Medical Laboratory Technologists Ravi Kumudesh told EconomyNext today that the virus is now transmitting in the community, despite official assurances to the contrary. The government should accept this reality in order to formulate a sound solution to the crisis, he said.
“Health officials still think we are in the cluster-forming stage; but without conducting enough random tests in the community, how did they arrive at that conclusion?” he added.
Kumudesh and others have been strongly critical of the health ministry’s inaction regarding repeated pleas by various quarters to ramp up testing – a call that the authorities have finally heeded.
“Adequate testing will show that COVID-19 in Sri Lanka has now reached community transmission level. Without admitting this, the authorities will not be able to come up with a workable strategy to fight the pandemic,” he said. (Colombo/Apr23/2021)