Turkey braces for new COVID-19 variant amid pandemic lull

The coronavirus pandemic is no longer a major challenge for Turkey’s hospitals as hospitalizations decrease but the country remains on alert against the emerging threat of the BA.2 subvariant.

Just as the world indulged in a collective sigh of relief from the coronavirus with omicron, the new BA.2 subvariant of the deadly disease has started to dominate cases, dashing hopes for a quick end to the pandemic. The subvariant now accounts for most of the cases in Europe, with countries revising plans to respond to the course of the pandemic.

For Turkey, on the continent’s south-eastern tip, trends in the pandemic in Europe often arrive late. Waves of cases stemming from new variants of the infection usually arrive within two months after they are first reported elsewhere. The subvariant is now being closely monitored by health authorities and experts in the country, which recently relaxed pandemic-related restrictions, encouraged by a decline in the cases. In the meantime, it relishes a reduced burden on health care, as fewer cases require hospitalization.

BA.2 is responsible for 60% of cases in some European countries, from Britain, France and Germany to Switzerland and Austria. It has also rapidly spread in the United States. BA.2, as a matter of fact, spreads faster than omicron and affects children and people aged 60 and above as well. Still, experts predict that it will not increase fatalities as a subvariant that the efficiency of vaccines can counter. Still, authorities have considered implementing new measures based on the course of the pandemic, in case of higher severity in cases or a rising number of deaths.

Currently, Turkey enjoys a decline in the pandemic, with daily fatalities now below 100. On Tuesday, the country reported 17,426 new cases and 90 fatalities. Figures are promising in terms of pandemic trends, compared to more than 100,000 in February, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 in Turkey. Slight fluctuations are reported some days, but the cases are mostly confined below 20,000. More importantly, hospitals have fewer COVID-19 patients now thanks to omicron’s mild symptoms, which people outside risk groups such as the elderly and those with chronic illnesses can easily recover from while quarantining at home. The drop in hospitalizations decreased by 30% in some cities. If the course of the pandemic remains stable, experts believe that Turkey will not be affected much by higher public mobility anticipated during Ramadan Bayram (Eid al-Fitr), which marks the end of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan and will be observed in the first week of May. The holiday is a time when thousands of people head to popular holiday destinations or their hometowns. Barring the impact of the BA.2 subvariant, Turkey may see a further decline in the cases this summer. In 2021 summer, it had lifted most restrictions related to the pandemic, at a time when people spend more time outdoors and the risk is lower than winter.

BA.2, dubbed “stealth omicron,” is still being studied in the world over its impact on the future of the pandemic. It earned this name for its ability to escape COVID-19 tests which at times, identify it as a delta infection. A technical advisory group for the World Health Organization (WHO) had advised public health authorities to monitor it as a distinct omicron strain in February. Initial findings of the studies show, in rare cases, it can infect people who recovered from an omicron infection. The subvariant has been found in more than 80 countries.

Turkey’s biggest weapon against the subvariant and other strains is mass vaccination. Since January 2021, the country has administered more than 146 million doses and the number of people with two doses of the vaccine exceeded 52.9 million.

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