The emergence of a new variant of the coronavirus, which is 70% more contagious than the current Covid-19, has terrorised the world now struggling to recover with vaccine hopes.
The rapid spreading of the new strain in the United Kingdom and South Africa has already isolated the countries as the rest of the world has been suspending flights to those countries.
Bangladesh, which is also recovering from the previous blow of the pandemic to its health and economy, however, is still continuing flights to and from the UK.
Asked what Bangladesh is thinking about flight restrictions, Health Secretary Abdul Mannan told The Business Standard that the matter of imposing flight restrictions is depending on the civil aviation authorities.
Md Mohibul Haque, senior secretary at the Ministry of Civil Aviation and Tourism, said no decision has yet been made in this regard.
On Saturday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced stricter restrictions because of the new strain of the coronavirus.
The new coronavirus variant, which prompted the UK government to impose a Tier 4 lockdown in London and southeastern England, and tighten restrictions for all of England over the festive period, is "out of control", said UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Sunday.
The variant of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, which was found in the UK has been dubbed VUI - 202012/01.
To give a perspective, until a few weeks ago, the new strain was associated with 10-15% coronavirus cases in a few areas. Last week, it was associated with nearly 60% of cases in London, reports The Guardian.
Professor Dr Nazrul Islam, noted virologist and a member of National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19, told The Business Standard, "This new variant of the coronavirus is spreading fast so Bangladesh should suspend flight operations at least with UK."
He suggested that anyone who is not a UK citizen but has recently travelled to the country must be brought under official quarantine.
Professor Dr Nazrul Islam further said the new strain of the coronavirus is being mutated in such a way that vaccines may not work on it. "That would be dangerous. Then there will be no benefit in buying the Oxford vaccine. Therefore, we have to take immediate steps to prevent the entry of this strain into our country."
He continued, "Virologists in the UK have speculated that the new strain is causing a spike change in the coronavirus. If this speculation comes true, then the coronavirus vaccine being developed now will not work against the new strain."
Even though the new coronavirus strain found in the UK is not deadly, it is more contagious, said Professor Liaquat Ali, biomedical scientist and educationalist, adding this may prolong the pandemic if it spreads fast.
"The strain found in South Africa is slightly more deadly. Therefore, it would be better to suspend flights with both countries," he argued.
Professor Liaquat Ali, who is also a member of the government-formed Public Health Advisors Group, further said, "If the air communication can't be suspended, flights should be observed closely. Passengers arriving from these two countries must be kept into at least 3-day quarantine. None should be allowed to enter the country showing Covid-19-free certificates only."
He also emphasised screening passengers, and proper isolation and quarantine.
Md Mokabbir Hossain, managing director of Biman Bangladesh Airlines, told TBS that they have no plan to suspend flights with the UK until the government bans them.
Health experts in the UK and US said the strain seems to infect more easily compared to the previous ones but there is no evidence yet that it is more deadly.
Patrick Vallance, British government's chief scientific adviser, said the strain "moves fast and is becoming the dominant variant," causing over 60% of infections in London by December.
The strain is also concerning because it has so many mutations — nearly two dozen — and some are on the spiky protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells. That spike is what current vaccines target.
The mutation of the virus has worried experts across the world as drug manufacturers are still in the preliminary stages of the vaccine against Covid-19. The new variant in the UK was first seen in mid-September in London and Kent. By December, it had become the "dominant variant" in London.
Prof Kare Molbak, vaccine expert and director of infectious diseases at Denmark's State Serum Institute (SSI), told The Guardian, "The worst-case scenario is that we would start off a new pandemic in Denmark. There's a risk that this mutated virus is so different from the others that we'd have to put new things in a vaccine and therefore [the mutation] would slam us all in the whole world back to the start."
Countries banning flights from UK and South Africa
More than 30 countries have imposed travel bans on the UK.
France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Belgium, Austria, Ireland, Norway, Bulgaria, Canada, Israel and Hong Kong, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile, Morocco, Oman, India all announced restrictions on the UK.
Israel, Turkey, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Switzerland have all halted air travel to and from South Africa.
Saudi flight cancelled, 11,000 Bangladeshi passengers in trouble
On Monday, Biman Managing Director Mokabbir Hossain said the Saudi government has suspended international flights to all destinations in Saudi Arabia for a week from December 21 because of the covid-19.
"There is a hint that the ban could be extended for another week. That's why we've cancelled a total of 21 flights to three Saudi destinations - Dammam, Jeddah and Riyadh."
Mokabbir Hossain said the 21 flights were to carry 5,100 passengers from Bangladesh and about 6,000 passengers from three destinations in Saudi Arabia. All of them have Bangladesh Biman tickets.
"If the Saudi government launches the flight, we will reallocate their seat free of charge on the basis of seat vacancy. We apologise for the inconvenience. The issue is the decision of the Saudi government and we have nothing to do in this regard."
UK's new Covid-19 variant picked up in Denmark, the Netherlands and Australia
The new Covid-19 variant, originating from south-east England, has been identified in Denmark, the Netherlands and as far as Australia, World Health Organization (WHO) Covid-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove said on Sunday.
"It is of concern that the virus is spreading and that it has so many mutations," she said.
She also said, "We understand that the virus does not cause more severe disease from the preliminary information that [the UK] shared with us, although again those studies are underway to look at hospitalized patients with this variant."
Van Kerkhove said that doing more sequencing will be helpful in determining whether this variant is circulating elsewhere.
"The longer this virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change. So we really need to do everything we can right now to prevent spread," she added.
How new is the variant?
The variant is not new. In fact, it was first detected in September. In November, around a quarter of cases in London were from the new variant. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December, according to a report in the BBC.
Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham, said, "The amount of evidence in the public domain is woefully inadequate to draw strong or firm opinions on whether the virus has truly increased transmission."