As India surges, Bangladesh lacks jabs, faces virus variants

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Shoppers crowd at a marketplace in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, May 7, 2021. India's surge in coronavirus cases is having a dangerous effect on neighboring Bangladesh. Health experts warn of imminent vaccine shortages just as the country should be stepping up its vaccination drive, and as more contagious virus variants are beginning to be detected. (AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu)

DHAKA – India's surge in coronavirus cases is having a dangerous effect on neighboring Bangladesh, with health experts warning of imminent vaccine shortages just as the country should be stepping up jabs and as more contagious virus variants are beginning to be detected.

On Saturday, health authorities said that for the first time, a coronavirus variant originally identified in India was found in Bangladesh, without providing further details. For weeks, South African variants have dominated the samples sequenced in Bangladesh. There are concerns that these versions spread more easily and that first-generation vaccines could be less effective against them.

Experts say that declining infections in Bangladesh over the last two weeks compared to March and early April — for reasons that aren't fully understood — provided the perfect opportunity for the nation to scale up vaccinations.

“This is the time to vaccinate, keep infections low and make sure that new variants don’t emerge here,” said Senjuti Saha, a scientist at the Child Health Research Foundation in Bangladesh, who is also sequencing the virus.

However, India has banned the export of vaccines as it grapples with the crisis at home. The Serum Institute of India was supposed to supply 30 million doses — 5 million a month — to Bangladesh by June. But the institute has only supplied 7 million doses and has suspended further shipments since February.

“It's caused a real problem,” said Dr. A.S.M. Alamgir, a scientist with the government’s Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research.

Fearing shortages, the government late last month stopped allowing people to register for a first vaccine dose, and the administration of second doses is also being hampered.

The densely populated country of 160 million is desperately seeking new avenues for vaccines other than India, and is attempting to produce Russian and Chinese vaccines at home by bringing technology from both countries. Bangladesh is expecting 500,000 doses of Chinese vaccines next week as a gift from Beijing, and has also sought help from the United States.