The Delta variant of COVID-19 has arrived in Sri Lanka. The highly transmissible strain of the virus is thought to have originated in India and has caused spikes in cases in many locations around the world. With vaccinations moving slowly, its appearance in Sri Lanka is cause for concern.
Cases of the coronavirus Delta variant have been spreading across Sri Lanka over the last month. This comes as another blow to a country that was already dealing with a rise in the Alpha variant.
The Delta variant is thought to be more contagious than other strains of COVID-19. This appears to be the case in Sri Lanka, with more and more people testing positive across the island nation.
Despite the number of infections caused by this new strain, the government intends to reduce travel restrictions.
President Gotabhaya Rajapakse announced on July 5, 2021 that he is planning to reopen the country completely to international travel by September.
This means that it may be a good time to consider applying for a Sri Lanka visa online, which will be valid for a full 6 months, allowing holders to visit from September.
Until then, travel between India and Sri Lanka is only possible via the air bubble agreement.
The Sri Lankan President’s decision is based on the rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations in the country. The plan is to have all residents over 30 years of age fully vaccinated by the end of summer.
Rajapakse declared: “To face the pandemic, the only solution is the vaccination.” He went on to defend the decision to remove travel restrictions, saying: “Without opening the country we cannot sustain the economy.”
However, the World Health Organization (WHO) and various health experts in Sri Lanka itself have warned against the move.
WHO director Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently gave the following advice:
“Public health and social measures like strong surveillance, strategic testing, early case detection, isolation, and clinical care remain critical as well as masking, physical distancing, avoiding crowded places and keeping indoor areas well-ventilated are the basis for the response.”
Dr. Ghebreyesus has warned governments not to take a “vaccination is the only solution” stance.
However, it appears that the Sri Lankan government is not about to heed this advice. The country looks set on the idea of reopening the economy. This will mean lowering restrictions at a time when the Delta variant is rife.
The Delta variant is the 4th major variant of SARS-CoV-2 to emerge. It has been noted by the WHO to be a “variant of concern” due to how fast it has spread. After first being reported in India it is now present in over 100 countries, including Sri Lanka.
The other variants of concern are the Alpha (first documented in the UK), Beta (South Africa), and Gamma (Brazil) strains.
The WHO has also classified an additional 4 strains of COVID-19 as “variants of interest”, including the Eta, Iota, Kappa, and Lambda variants, following the pattern of naming them after Greek letters.
Among all of these variants, the Delta is believed to be the most transmissible. Estimates put it at between 40-60% faster-spreading than the Alpha strain.
Some experts believe that it will soon become the dominant strain of COVID-19 worldwide.
India is believed to have been the point of origin for the Delta variant and suffered a heavy second wave of infections as a result of this new, more contagious strain. Many other countries, such as the UK, US, and Israel are also seeing steep rises in cases thanks to this strain.
As India’s numbers of new cases fall and the country prepares for a potential 3rd wave of COVID-19, it appears that Sri Lanka is now feeling the effects of Delta.
On 3rd July, 1 in 10 of the 142 test samples collected from across the country showed that the subject was infected with the Delta variant. The strain was found to be present in Colombo, Galle, Matara, and Trincomalee.
The spread of the variant is being exacerbated by the slow vaccination rollout in the country.
Dr. Chandima Jeewandara, director of the Allergy, Immunity and Cell Biology Unit at the Sri Jayewardenepura University said:
“It is the worst we could have imaged at such a time. We are already dealing with a spike in cases with the Alpha variant. Delta poses a greater risk because our vaccine coverage is low, and among those who are vaccinated a majority have got only one dose.”
As of mid-July 2021, less than 20% of Sri Lanka’s population have received the first dose of the vaccination, and less than 10% are fully vaccinated against coronavirus.
However, the country is facing an economic crisis and the Rajapakse government is desperate to stimulate the economy.
The vaccination program is expected to accelerate as the country prepares to open.
So far, cinemas, museums, daycare centers, swimming pools, and theatres have been given the all-clear to open at 25% capacity in Sri Lanka.
Factories are back open and operating at full capacity — in fact, clothing manufacturing has barely been restricted since May 2020.
Education Minister G. L. Peiris announced that the reopening of all schools in Sri Lanka from August 2021.
There have recently between 1000 and 2000 new COVID-19 cases per day in Sri Lanka, but it is suspected that the real figure may be higher due to the relatively low rate of PCR testing.