After almost 24 hours of alarm and speculations over the claim that the new Covid-19 variant found in the UK had already reached Bangladesh, scientists at the Bangladesh Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (BCSIR) officially dismissed "the discovery".
The BCSIR said it would not be appropriate to "panic" about the new virus strain based on the unfinished genome sequencing of the virus.
"We cannot comment about a research that we have just started. There should not be any remarks, which are likely to cause panic," BCSIR Chairman Prof Md Aftab Ali Shaikh cautioned the press Thursday.
Earlier on Wednesday night, citing the BCSIR principal scientific officer and genomic research lab head Dr Salim Khan, some media outlets reported that the new virus strain found in the UK is already in Bangladesh.
The highly contagious strain was found in the UK in September and is spreading rapidly in many regions of England, including London. The variant has already reached many countries such as Australia and the Netherlands.
More than 40 countries including the UK's European neighbours have closed their borders to the country.
Citing Dr Salim Khan, some local media outlets reported Thursday that the BCSIR sequenced the genomes of five samples of coronavirus in early November, and those have similarities with the new variant found in the UK.
"The type of mutation in the UK and Bangladesh have rough similarities," the reports said, quoting Salim Khan.
However, BCSIR Chairman Prof Md Aftab Ali Shaikh said, "We are unable to say anything definitive until we get the complete sequencing result. We will let you know as soon as the results are out."
The BCSIR chairman also claimed that he did not know how the news about the five-genome sequencing reached the media.
Some other virologists and scientists also supported the BCSIR chairman, saying speculation about the discovery of the new variant in Bangladesh is "misrepresenting".
Dr Md Marufur Rahman, deputy programme manager to the health directorate, said the BCSIR only found a virus mutation similar to the new virus strain.
"The UK variant has a total of 17 mutations, and even those are not completely new to the world. Those mutations were found separately in different places. But the UK variant has all the mutations together.
"In early November, the BCSIR submitted five genome sequences, which are roughly similar to one of the 17 mutations of the UK strain," he explained.
In the meantime, Dr ASM Alamgir, principal scientific officer to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), clarified the speculation from another perspective.
"If the Bangladesh strain were the same as the UK variant, our hospitals would have been already flooded with patients, crushing the healthcare system," he said, adding there is nothing to be worried about.
Prof Dr Nazrul Islam, noted virologist and also a member of the National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19, also echoed Dr Maruf and Alamgir. "It is not enough to reach conclusions just because of a similar strain, the significance of the similar strain is what's crucial. There are other issues such as whether the strain is found in critical cases, and whether the strain caused infection rates to spike," he noted.
Allowing UK variant through airports will be 'a crime'
Though the government has not suspended flights with the UK, Health Minister Zahid Maleque Wednesday said that UK returnees without Covid-free certificate will be placed under institutional quarantine.
On Thursday, 165 UK returnees with Covid-free certificates at Sylhet airport were sent for home quarantine.
Dr Sirajum Munira, in-charge of the medical team at the airport, said their team checked the passengers and released them as they had Covid-free certificates.
"But we instructed them to follow a 14-day home quarantine period. Local administration will monitor whether they are maintaining the mandatory isolation period," said the physician.
However, experts opined that releasing passengers from ports to self-isolation could result in a complete disaster. Experts have been advocating for institutional quarantine for all passengers from the UK – with or without coronavirus certificates.
Prof Dr Nazrul Islam said sending the UK returnees for home quarantine on the basis of Covid-free certificates is absolutely the wrong decision.
"We witnessed that home quarantine failed to tackle the spread of the virus in Bangladesh. The UK returnees must be sent to institutional quarantine," he said.
Many Bangladeshis returned home from Italy and other countries in March this year. With slack detection measures and quarantine initiatives at ports, the country reported its first case on 8 March.
Recalling the spread of the virus, Prof Nazrul warned, "If the UK variant spreads in Bangladesh, it will be a crime of negligence."