Dhaka, Bangladesh – At least 32 people have died of the coronavirus disease in Bangladesh in the first five days of July, data compiled by Al Jazeera shows, as the country reports a sharp rise in infections which experts say is due to a new sub-variant of the virus.
The South Asian nation reported nearly 2,000 new cases and seven of those COVID-related deaths on Tuesday, with the trend showing a positivity rate of 16.74 percent, according to a daily bulletin issued by the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS).
The latest figures took the country’s total deaths to 29,181, while the total caseload mounted to about two million since the pandemic struck in early 2020.
Only a month ago, Bangladesh detected just 43 new cases with a daily positivity rate of less than one percent.
Experts fear it could be the arrival of a fourth wave of the coronavirus in Bangladesh, saying a new sub-variant of the deadly Omicron variant is responsible for the spike in cases.
A study conducted by the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) found the sub-variant BA.5 is spreading rapidly in the country. The sub-variants are classified as variants of concern by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
“The recent countrywide upsurge of COVID-19 cases as well as hospitalisation warrants continuation of public health and social measures,” the icddr,b said in a statement.
In six weeks – between May 14 and June 24 – Omicron BA.5 “became the most predominant subvariant,” said the statement.
“During this period, 51 out of 52 COVID-19 positive cases were identified as BA.5 subvariants and one BA.2 by using complete genome sequencing,” it added.
To curb the spread of the virus, the Bangladesh government on June 28 instructed its officials to enforce a “no mask, no service” policy in all offices and public places.
The government’s National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC) on COVID-19 has recommended strengthening the screening of all incoming passengers at airports.
NTAC president Dr Mohammad Shahidullah told Al Jazeera if people do not abide by the health guidelines, the infections could further rise.
“We can already call it the fourth wave of COVID-19. I am urging all to maintain social distancing again,” he said.
Shahidullah said they are not considering any lockdown “as this is not a feasible solution, especially in view of its economic impact”.
Dr M Mushtuq Husain, adviser at the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) of Bangladesh told Al Jazeera many in the world are now treating COVID-19 “like flu”.
“Of course, people are dying because of COVID but we can no longer go for a lockdown. Life has to go on, but carefully,” Husain said.
The government has vaccinated more than 70 percent of its 160 million population with two doses of the coronavirus vaccine, while nearly 15 percent of the people have received booster shots.
“You can protect against infection for three months on average after getting vaccinated. Previous occurrence of COVID also gives you protection for around three months at best,” Husain said.
Husain, however, fears the worst in the coming days as the Muslim-majority country prepares for the Eid al-Adha festival which falls next week.
Officials say the packed markets, especially the large cattle markets for the ritualistic sacrifice, could become “super-spreaders” of the virus.
Before the festival every year, a number of makeshift camps crop up mainly in capital Dhaka and the port city of Chattogram where cattle traders from across the country sell cows and goats, with millions attending.
The two cities, among the country’s largest, also witness an exodus of millions of people taking trains, buses, ferries and private vehicles to reach the countryside to celebrate the festival with their families.
“Because of the cattle markets and Eid, I believe this wave will reach its peak by mid-July. But it will subside very fast too – by the end of July,” said Husain.