As of now, the people of Qatar are safe from the Indian variant, Dr. Al Khal said on Sunday.
The deadly Indian variant of the coronavirus has not reached Qatar due to strict measures to ensure protection among the community, said Dr. Abdullatif Al Khal, Chair of the National Health Strategic Group on Covid-19 and Head of Infectious Diseases at Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC).
The more severe Covid-19 strain, known as the “double mutant Indian variant,” first emerged in the Asian country and has since been detected in multiple countries around the world.
It contains two mutations that makes the virus even more transmissible and less susceptible to vaccines than other strains. In India, the variant has been the reason behind millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of death cases.
Researchers around the world are still conducting experiments to determine the effectiveness of the FDA approved anti-Covid vaccines against the Indian variant, including the two available in Qatar: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna.
In a press conference on Sunday evening, Al Khal confirmed the variant has yet to be detected in Qatar, where authorities quickly moved to impose more restrictions last month amid a rise in cases and concerns over the double mutant strain.
The official assured that in the case that an individual carrying the Indian variant enters Qatar, hotel quarantine and precautionary measures set by authorities would have likely handled the situation without allowing the virus to spread among citizens and residents in the country.
“Our quarantine policy for anyone entering Qatar has been one of the strictest of its kind in the world and proved to be effective in detecting those infected and quickly isolating them. It delays the introduction and spread of new variants into Qatar,” he said.
Speaking on Qatar TV about the latest developments with the national vaccination drive, the doctor confirmed more than 1.7 million vaccine doses have now been administered since December.
The conference on Sunday announced a four-phase plan by Qatar’s Ministry of Public Health [MoPH] to gradually ease restrictions following a significant drop in daily Covid-19 infections among the community.
Due to concerns over a potential increase in cases during Eid festivities, as was the case last year, restrictions are expected to be on May 28th, and will be altered depending on the daily infections over periodic evaluations.
“Qatar is among the top 10 countries in the world in terms of vaccine coverage for the size of its population,” Dr. Al Khal said, urging the general public to take the Covid-19 vaccines to facilitate a return to normalcy.
The plan to gradually lift restrictions will be delivered over four phases, with each phase lasting three weeks.
“The date of implementation and the duration of each phase will depend on the pandemic indicators that rely significantly on the degree of compliance of the community members with the current measures, restrictions, and guidance by the government,” he added.
“The first phase of the gradual lifting has been decided to start on May 28 with possibility of bringing it to May 23 if people adhere to the preventive measures,” Al Khal stated.
He also confirmed the ministry has established a unit to schedule vaccination appointments to speed up the lifting restrictions.
After vaccinating essential workers, priority will be given to individuals who provide direct services to the public, such as workers in beauty salons, barbers, restaurants, supermarkets, hotels, and other hospitality services facilities.
“It is very encouraging that we are seeing clear evidence that the vaccines are protecting people from developing symptoms of Covid-19 and becoming ill. The next phases of the plan to lift restrictions will include privileges for those who have been vaccinated. They can dine out and will be given priority at sports centres, among others,” he noted.
Second wave not over yet
A study based on the real-world use of the vaccine in Qatar published last week suggested that the shot can prevent severe symptoms, including pneumonia and death caused by two of the most dangerous UK and South African strains.
Overall, the vaccine was 97.4% effective at preventing severe symptoms caused by the novel coronavirus.
“We’re talking about a variant which is probably the nastiest of all the variants of concern. It’s not the 95 percent we were hoping, but the 75 percent is really great,” said infectious disease epidemiologist at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar Laith Abu-Raddad, one of the study’s authors.
Recent data also shows that those who have received both doses of the vaccine are 61 times less likely to require hospitalisation if infected by the virus, and 91 times less likely to require intensive care.
“These statistics are very promising and give good cause to be optimistic about a return towards normal life once we have vaccinated around 80-90% of the eligible population in Qatar,” Al Khal said.
While the restrictions have saved Qatar from an alarming rise in infections and hospitalisation cases, Dr. Al Khal warned against complacency.
“We still need to be cautious as we are not out of the second wave yet, and we are still dealing with two highly contagious and highly virulent strains of the virus that are actively circulating in the community.”