World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Director for Africa, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti has revealed that researches are underway to pull the vein off the epidemiological implications of the new variants of the dreaded COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking at a virtual media briefing on COVID-19 on Thursday, she hinted that , “While in 2020 Africa was spared much of the worst of COVID-19 with relatively fewer infections, cases and deaths compared to other regions of the world.
“We start a new year facing new threats from the virus, with an average daily new case count of more than 25,000 in the last 14 days. Africa is experiencing the second wave, which is higher than the peak experienced last July. We know that these numbers are likely to grow as the impact of holiday season and other get together becomes evident.
“The continent has now topped three million cases with over 72,000 lives sadly lost. This is a stark reminder that the virus is relentless, and that it still presents a manifest threat, and that our war is far from being won. In addition, we are now confronted with new variants of the virus. It is not surprising because the more the virus spreads, the higher the likelihood of mutations. However, some of these changes are concerning. Preliminary analysis finds the new variants circulating in South Africa to be more transmissible and it appears to be driving the surge in new infection in the country and in the sub-region.
She continued; “Genomic sequencing has found the 501y.v2 variant present in three other countries – Botswana, Gambia and Zambia, and it could be present in more countries. Deep investigations are underway to fully understand the epidemiological implications. But at present there are no indications that the new variant increases the severity of the disease. There is also no conclusive evidence that it will lessen the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. However a virus that can spread more easily will of course put further strain the health system, and health workers who are in many cases already overwhelmed and overstretched. There is still much to learn.
“It is important for countries to improve routine sequencing of SARS-COV-2 viruses on the African continent to better monitor the emergence of variants and their consequent spread across countries.
“When we know how the virus has changed and fully understand the epidemiological and pathological significance of that change, then we can adjust our response accordingly. WHO, together with our colleagues at the Africa CDC, has supported countries to set up genome sequencing through a network of specialised laboratories.
“We are also helping in shipping samples, providing laboratory supplies, as well as technical guidance and mobilising funds. WHO is also working with a group of international scientists to coordinate research efforts. While we continue to increase our knowledge of COVID-19, we must persist with the proven public health measures that helped to slow down the spread of virus during the first wave including wearing masks and physical distancing,” Moeti said.
While adding that; “ This variant does not share any of the 22 other lineage defining mutations of b1.1.7. These cases of p681h variant in Nigeria were found in two samples conducted on the 3rd of August and the 9th of October. The background to this is that the work done shows that there are 18 different lineages detected in Nigeria so far since the beginning of the outbreak, and we do not have any evidence to indicate that this p681h variant or any other variant currently circulating in Nigeria is associated with increased transmission.
“The emergence of new variants in and of themselves is not interesting and it is not news. What is news is if one of the variance has been shown to be associated or correlated with an increase in transmission, increase in variability, resistance to vaccination, and any other outcomes. While we do have genomic surveillance in the few centres in Nigeria, the relative difference is still in Nigeria versus the UK and even South Africa. It obviously implies a reduced likelihood to detect such changes when they do happen.
“We are currently in the process of sequencing more samples from the recent surge of cases in Nigeria in order to analyse firstly for changes in circulating viruses in Nigeria, but also specifically looking for those variants of interest circulating in South Africa and the UK that have already been shown to be associated with increased transmission.
“Our ongoing efforts in sequencing have two objectives : one is to identify if there is any variant that is associated with any change in outcomes, either in transmission, severity, mortality or any other. Secondly, to specifically look for the variants of interest already identified in the UK and South Africa to be associated with these changes in transmission.
Ihekweazu added; “In as much as the full extent of these mutations and others are still being studied, the importance of a robust genomic surveillance system cannot be overemphasised. And that’s why I identify and report changes in the genome of pathogens such as SARS-COV-2 that are of public health interest.
“We really must learn from efforts in South Africa, specifically where they have done sequencing overtime periods. Because it is only when you do this over time that you can demonstrate a change in the prevalence of one variance over another and that you can make conclusions on the severity, transmission among many others. ”