BusinessDay

Nigeria’s COVID-19 cases hit 9-month high

Nigeria’s COVID-19 cases on Wednesday hit a nine-month high as 1,424 new cases were confirmed. Lagos, the epicentre of the country’s coronavirus infection accounts for 55.8 percent of that total, with 796 cases.

This surge follows the detection of highly transmissible omicron in the country and a gradual rise in inbound travel.

And Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general, World Health Organisation (WHO), has said that the omicron variant should not be underestimated and is spreading faster than any other COVID-19 variants as it is now present in 77 nations.

According to data released by the National Centre for Disease Control, 152 cases were detected in Delta, FCT 130, Edo 129, Oyo 82, Ondo 39, Rivers 39, Kaduna 15, Enugu 9, Anambra 8, Kwara 7, Ogun 7, Bayelsa 4, Kano 4, and Akwa Ibom 3.

Omicron has 10 times more mutations on the spike protein than the Delta variant, according to scientific studies, raising fears about transmissibility, symptoms, and whether it can evade vaccines more easily.

Scientists say the combination of four particular mutations helps Omicron evade antibodies.

Findings show that Omicron has pushed Nigeria’s average daily cases of up by 451 percent, from 74 cases seen in the first week of December.

A total of 2,859 cases were confirmed in the week ended December 12, compared with 520 in the preceding week. Nigeria now has 217,481 cases confirmed and 2,981 deaths recorded across the federation.

Nigeria recorded its first three cases of omicron on December 1, days after it was first discovered in South Africa, and has entered a travel ban tussle with some countries.

The rise, 75 percent led by Lagos, has activated the reality of the fourth wave of the disease in Nigeria, reliving a similar pattern of surge that played out this time last year.

In December 2020, Nigeria was pushed into the second wave of the pandemic by a sustained rise in community infections, claiming 1,197 lives.

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A new variant of COVID-19, lineage B.1.1.7 (Alpha), which cancelled Christmas in the UK, was found in Nigeria but after initial discovery in the UK.

About 5,618 new cases had been recorded by the middle of the month, raising the total number of infections since the start of the pandemic to 73,175 as of December 13.

A fresh record of the highest daily cases was set December 13 with 796 infections, overtaking 790 cases set July 1, during the gradual easing of the two-month-long lockdown that affected Abuja, Lagos and Ogun states.

While intensified testing and surveillance at major points of entry reflect in the current infection rate, the WHO says the variant reported in more than 60 nations poses a very high global risk, with mutations likely leading to higher transmissibility.

Don’t underestimate Omicron – WHO

According to Ghebreyesus, “Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant. We’re concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild,” at a COVID update in Geneva.

“Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril.

“Even if Omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems. I need to be very clear: vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis. Countries can – and must – prevent the spread of Omicron with measures that work today,” the WHO chief said.

He warned that making choices about strategies to halt the pandemic was the wrong approach: “It’s not vaccines instead of distancing. It’s not vaccines instead of ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well.”

In the past 10 weeks, the international vaccine rollout initiative, COVAX, has shipped more vaccines than in the first nine months of the year combined, with most nations using vaccines as fast as they get them.

“A small group of countries are facing challenges rolling out vaccines and scaling up rapidly, and WHO and our partners are working closely with those countries to overcome bottlenecks,” he said.

“Although we expect further improvements in supply, there are no guarantees, and the hard-won gains we have made are fragile.”

Omicron existed since 2020 in quest for variant origin – Scientists

Scientists seeking convincing knowledge on how Omicron managed to quietly evolve and sustain mutation have come up with varying theories on how the highly infectious variant might have originated.

One of them, Sarah Otto, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of British Columbia, said the variant might have hidden under the radar for over a year because Omicron’s genetic traits bear more similarity to forms of the virus that circulated in 2020 than more recent strains, such as Beta and Delta.

The disease detectives went to work after reports of the discovery of Omicron sprang up from South Africa towards November end and the genetic sequencing details were uploaded to a global database.

A common theory among virologists is that Omicron spent months mutating in an individual with a weakened immune system and a chronic infection, according to a Financial Times report.

Other theories accuse the use of anti-COVID drugs of speeding up evolution and that there is the possibility that a crossover into an animal species that later jumped back into humans occurred.

Given that South Africa has faced the first wave of Omicron infections, it is likely that the variant traces its roots to somewhere in the region, said Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.

A South African research team, which included Lessells, discovered an untreated HIV patient late last year who was infected with COVID-19 for more than six months and gave rise to a string of mutations that affected the spike protein, the part of the virus where most of Omicron’s adaptations are located.

A UK study observed a similar process in a COVID patient with blood cancer. The immune response of an untreated HIV patient would be “too weak to clear the virus but strong enough to drive the process of evolution,” explained Lessells.

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