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Coronavirus far more prevalent than indicated by PCR testing statistics



A seroprevalence rate of 24.5% was seen in all age groups in the CMC in the end of January 2021, a research carried by Sri Lankan and British researchers has revealed. This is a much higher number than what the PCR tests indicated.

The research was carried out in the Colombo city, which experienced the highest number of coronavirus cases until the end of January 2021, the researchers have said. Although Sri Lanka had successfully contained the pandemic until the end of September, with no locally detected cases from August to September 2020, an explosive spread began during early October, which rapidly spread across the country.

“However, as Colombo is the commercial capital of the country, and also due to extremely overcrowded living conditions, 32,346/89,817 (36.01%) locally detected cases by the end of March 2021, were from Colombo. Of the cases in the Colombo District, 14,416 (44.6%) were identified within the city. We carried out a serosurvey prior to initiation of the vaccination programme to understand the extent of the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak”, they said.

The researchers added that although the seropositivity rate was highest in the 10–20 age group (34.03%), the PCR positivity rate was 9.80%. Therefore, the PCR positivity rates appear to underestimate the true extent of the outbreak and the age groups which were infected. They said that in many countries, the reported number of cases did not necessarily reflect the extent of the outbreak, age groups infected and groups at risk, as the majority of infections were asymptomatic and limitations in carrying out quantitative real-time PCR for SARS-CoV2. It has been estimated that surveillance of SARS- CoV2 with qRT-PCR alone may underestimate the true prevalence by tenfold.

“Differences in the PCR positivity rates and seropositivity rates were also seen in 60–70-year-olds (8.90 vs 30.4%) and in individuals 70 years (4.10 vs. 1.20%). The seropositivity rate of the females was 29.70% (290/976), which was significantly higher than in males 21.2% (333/1,571), the researchers said.

It is important to carry out serosurveillance studies to understand the true extent of an outbreak in order to understand the future outbreaks that may occur in a particular area and to further understand transmission dynamics and duration of immunity, the researchers have said.

“Based on the seropositivity rates of 24.46%, 138,276 individuals are likely to have been infected, compared to the reported PCR positive cases of 14,416. Therefore, infection detection rates by PCR appeared to have underestimated the actual number of infections by 9.59-fold, which is not surprising as the random PCRs were mainly carried out in the working population and less frequently in those who were confined to their houses.” They claimed that as samples for PCR were obtained on only certain days of the week when the team visited the housing complexes and residential areas, the population who underwent PCRs on most days mainly represented the working population. Blood samples were obtained from these participants at the same time when samples were taken from them for these routine random PCR testing for SARS-CoV-2. None of the participants had any symptoms at the time of obtaining blood samples and were not previously diagnosed as been infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The researchers further claimed that the Colombo city was divided into six districts: namely D1, D2A, D2B, D3, D4, and D5. Although the overall seroprevalence was 24.46%, certain districts in the CMC (D2A, D2B, and D3) had higher seroprevalence rates (26.2–39%) compared to D4 which only had a seroprevalence rate of 3.33%. These overall differences between the districts reflected the population density and the housing conditions in these districts, with the districts with high seroprevalence having more overcrowded areas, with poor housing conditions. The differences in the seroprevalence rates in different districts could also be due to differences in the control measured adopted. For instance, in D1, although the seroprevalence was 14.76%, certain areas in this district had a very high infection rate as determined by PCR positivity. Due to early detection of SARS-CoV-2 infection in certain areas in this district, these areas were isolated very early, and therefore, it would have curtailed the spread to the rest of the D1 district resulting in fewer infections. Such similar differences have been observed in many states in India, where the slum areas reported seroprevalence rates between 52.6 to 58.7% compared to 12–17.9% in non-slum areas Although the overall seroprevalence rates in the CMC was less than urban areas in India, it was higher than many areas in Europe (Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and Germany), which reported a seroprevalence between 5 to 13.6% and Iran (22.16%), which reported higher infection rates (14–17). However, the use of different antibody assays, which had a varying degree of sensitivity and specificities in these different studies could result in such differences.

Chandima Jeewandara, Dinuka Guruge, Inoka Sepali Abyrathna, Saubhagya Danasekara, Banuri Gunasekera, Pradeep Darshana Pushpakumara, Deshan Madhusanka, Deshni Jayathilaka, Thushali Ranasinghe, Gayasha Somathilake, Shyrar Tanussiya, Tibutius Tanesh Jayadas, Heshan Kuruppu, Nimasha Thashmi, Michael Harvie, Ruwan Wijayamuni, Lisa Schimanski, T. K. Tan, Pramila Rijal, Julie Xiao, Graham S. Ogg, Alain Townsend and Gathsaurie Neelika Malavige were the researchers involved.  (RK)

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SL defenceless, warn experts



New COVID variants

By Rathindra Kuruwita

Due to the lax testing at the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA), there is a strong possibility that any new variant of COVID-19 entering the country, College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS) President, Ravi Kumudesh told The Island yesterday commenting on the detection of a new coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa.

Even a travel ban would be useless unless the country enhances its testing and surveillance capacities, Kumudesh said.

Kumudesh said that PCR tests were not conducted on passengers on arrival and that it was likely that even those not fully vaccinated were entering the country. “Gene sequencing in respect of those infected with COVID inside the country was at a minimal level, and therefore, there is no way we can find out whether a new variant has entered the country until it is too late.

“There are two state-of-the-art labs in the BIA but no tests are done there. We are not ready, at all. Several nations are imposing travel bans on travellers from South Africa and the region. Perhaps, we should follow suit. However, the fact that we don’t test those coming in means that even a travel ban might be useless,” he said.

Kumudesh added that the number of PCR tests conducted had dropped to such a low level that reagents used in some labs for PCR testing are now nearing the expiry dates. The attitude of health officials at the airport is such that everyone operates on the basis that testing of passengers is not important.

Executive Director of the Institute for Health Policy (IHP), Dr. Ravi Rannan-Eliya yesterday said the detection of the new South African variant was potentially very bad news for all countries, and certainly for Sri Lanka.

“We still don’t have sufficient data on this, but I am very worried. It was only discovered a few days ago, but the scanty evidence strongly indicates that this new variant is driving a rapid increase in infections in S Africa. Only 100 cases have been confirmed officially, but reports indicate it may be 90% of new cases since Wed in Johannusburg,” he said.

Dr. Rannan-Eliya said that his best guess was that three out of four South Africans had been infected by COVID during the pandemic. Thus, a large number of them had acquired natural immunity. Moreover, 25% of others have been vaccinated.

“So this rapid spread despite a lot of immunity is very disturbing. This really points to this new variant—B1.1.529—being both more infectious and also significantly immune resistant. Something that also matches with its particular mutations,” he said.

Dr. Rannan-Eliya said he was not surprised at the emergence of the new variant because contrary to many experts who drink the kool-aid, there is no scientific basis to think SARS-CoV-2 had matured in its evolution. It might still have a lot of potential to evolve greater immune evasion and virulence, and that we should act on that basis.

“Second, because most of the world is following the misguided strategy of just accepting the virus (hey you – USA, UK, Sri Lanka…), the virus has plenty of chances to keep on mutating more because the truth is more of the virus is circulating than ever before. Third, despite a lot of nonsense about how T-cell immunity is going to protect us, there’s really no evidence that either infection or current vaccines and boosters will ever give us long-lasting immunity. We simply don’t know.”

Countries like South Africa, Peru, etc., who had such high levels of infection that much of their population was infected more than once, still continue to suffer new waves of infection.

“So this is bad news for all of us humans on planet earth, but very definitely for us in Sri Lanka. Why? Because based on how our medical establishment and govt authorities think, we will be slow or refuse to put the necessary border controls in to prevent this entering. And when it does enter-which is inevitable if this variant spreads globally–we will be slow to detect its entry, we will refuse to sound the alarm, and we will do everything but actually attempt to stop it. That’s been our track record, so why would it change? Worth noting that if this starts a new wave in Southern Africa, it’s just three to four months after their third wave. So just as immunity starts waning appreciably from natural infection (or vaccines). That gives us a strong hint of what our future holds unless we end this pandemic.”

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Navy deploys lagoon craft at Kurinchankerny until construction of new bridge



Residents waiting for the boat

Sri Lanka Navy began providing transport facilities at the Kurinchankerny lagoon following the recent tragedy that claimed several lives. This service will continue until the construction of a new bridge at Kurinchankerny, Kinniya in Trincomalee is completed.

This initiative was set in motion following the directives of Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenne. The Navy deployed a Lagoon Craft, capable of carrying 25 passengers safely at a time from Thursday (25) under the supervision of the Eastern Naval Command. The lagoon craft will be in service from 7.00 a.m. to 8.00 a.m. and from 12.00 noon to 2.00 p.m. each day. Further, the Navy erected a temporary jetty to allow passengers to board the vessel safely.

A schoolgirl on her way to the ferry
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UN Assistant Secretary General during talks with President pledges to work closely with Sri Lanka



The United Nations will always work closely with Sri Lanka, said Khaled Khiari, UN Assistant Secretary General for Political, Peacebuilding and Peace Operations. Khiari made these remarks when he met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Presidential Secretariat, on Thursday (25).

UN Assistant Secretary General Khiari is visiting Sri Lanka as a follow-up to the bilateral meeting with the President and the UN Secretary- General Antonio Guterres held in September this year on the sidelines of the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly. Khiari conveyed the best wishes of UN Secretary-General Guterres to President Rajapaksa and said that the UN is willing to engage in a constructive and positive engagement with Sri Lanka.

Expressing satisfaction over the President’s affection and interest in the environment, the Assistant Secretary General appreciated Sri Lanka’s commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The President explained that steps are being taken to plant 100,000 mangroves with the assistance of the Navy and actions are being taken to prevent climate change through environmental conservation programmes.

President Rajapaksa expressed gratitude to the UN agencies and donors that have assisted Sri Lanka through the COVAX facility to make the vaccination drive successful and in facing other challenges in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic.

The President pointed out that the government’s development programme implemented in the North and East after the end of the war in 2009 had brought about rapid development. The President recalled his invitation made while participating in the UN General Assembly to the diaspora to work together with all communities after visiting Sri Lanka. The President said that he hoped that the invitation would be met with positive initiatives.

The two sides exchanged views on unity and relations between communities. An environment where all communities can live freely has been made available in Sri Lanka. The President pointed out that the Minister of Justice is from the Muslim community, the Attorney General is from the Tamil community and many of those holding other key posts are of different communities. President Rajapaksa said the government has undertaken a great task in building unity among the communities and therefore, no one should have any doubt in this regard.

Both sides were of the view that education was fundamental to unity among the communities. President Rajapaksa said that the process by which South Africa has been able to end apartheid and move forward will be studied and the lessons that can be learned from it and what can be implemented will be looked into. The President also expressed hope that the United Nations will provide assistance in this regard.

Secretary to the President Dr. P.B. Jayasundera and Principal Advisor to the President Lalith Weeratunga, Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Sri Lanka Hanaa Singer-Hamdy, and Political Officer at the UN Peace Operations Department’s Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Department Chiaki Ota were also present.

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