Just as the WHO feared, India's brutal second wave has spilled over its borders, sending COVID-19 cases rising across the region, as cases climb in neighboring Bhutan and Nepal and as far away as Laos and Thailand.
According to Bloomberg, the acceleration in the region is mainly due to more contagious mutant strains, like the B.1617 variant first identified in India, which has been now been traced beyond its borders. The WHO has released a list of 10 mutant strains that it is keeping a close eye on.
New strains are identified every day as the virus continues to evolve, but only a handful make the WHO’s official watchlist as a "variant of interest" or the more serious designation "variant of concern," which is generally defined as a mutated strain that’s more contagious, more deadly and more resistant to current vaccines and treatments.
Like in India, the surging case numbers are overwhelming health-care systems in Laos and elsewhere. Laos health minister last week sought medical equipment and supplies as cases jumped 200x in a month. Nepal is seeing hospitals quickly filling up and, like India, it's running out of oxygen supplies. Health facilities are under pressure in Thailand, where 98% of new cases are from a more infectious mutant strain, while some island nations in the Pacific Ocean are facing their first waves of COVID.
Though it's not obvious by glancing at the charts above, ranked by the change in newly recorded infections over the previous month, Laos came in first with a 22,000% increase, followed by Nepal and Thailand, both of which saw fresh caseload skyrocketing more than 1,000% on a month-over-month basis.
The abrupt outbreak in Laos, which only saw 60 total cases through April 20, shows the challenges facing some of the landlocked nations. Porous borders make it harder to clamp down on illegal crossings though entry is technically banned.
Although nowhere close to India’s population or flare-up in scope, the reported spikes in most of these countries have been far steeper, signaling the potential dangers of an uncontrolled spread. The resurgence, and first-time outbreaks in some places that largely avoided the scourge last year, heightens the urgency of delivering vaccine supplies to poorer, less influential countries and averting a protracted pandemic.
"It’s very important to realize that the situation in India can happen anywhere," said Hans Kluge, the regional director at the World Health Organization for Europe, during a briefing last week. "This is still a huge challenge."
To fight the outbreak, Communist Laos has ordered lockdowns in its capital Vientiane and banned travel between the capital and provinces. The health minister reached out to neighbors like Vietnam for aid, but it's unclear whether much will be forthcoming.
Even Vietnam, which has among the lowest number of infections in Southeast Asia, is imposing curbs on public gatherings after reporting a 131% surge in new cases n April. With daily cases topping 3K last week for the first time since February, Malaysia is set to tighten restrictions May 6 through May 17 in six districts of Selangor, the country’s richest state.
But by far the most closely watched country is Thailand, which had been seeking to revive its ailing tourism industry after a successful effort to crack down and eliminate COVID-19. The country just reintroduced a two-week mandatory quarantine for all visitors, as the government forecasts for 2021 tourism revenue were just cut to 170 billion baht ($5.5 billion), from January’s expectations for 260 billion baht.
With the country’s public health system under pressure, authorities are trying to set up field hospitals to accommodate the flood of COVID-sickened patients. About 98% of cases in Thailand are of the variant first identified as linked to the UK mutant "Kent Strain" based on a sample of 500 people, according to Yong Poovorawan, chief of the Center of Excellence in Clinical Virology at Chulalongkorn University.
On the vaccine front, Thailand has launched a campaign on Tuesday to vaccinate 50K people living in a crowded river-side district of the capital Bangkok, as the country tries to contain a third wave of coronavirus infections.