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No evidence yet new COVID variant responsible for increased transmission in Nigeria, says NCDC

The director-general of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Chikwe Ihekweazu, on Thursday said there is no evidence yet to show that the new COVID-19 variant in Nigeria, the P681H, is associated with the rise in number of infections across the country.

The DG said the variant detected in August and October, before Nigeria slipped into a second wave of the pandemic, shares only one mutation with the B1.1.7 variant in the UK, but differs from the 22 other lineage defining mutations in the UK variant.

Speaking during a virtual briefing organised by WHO Africa on Thursday, Ihekweazu disclosed that the centre is currently in the process of sequencing more samples from the recent set of cases in Nigeria in order to analyse for changes in circulating viruses in Nigeria.

The Centre will also look out particularly for the two variants of interest circulating in South Africa and in the UK that have already been shown to be associated with increased transmission.

“So, our on-going efforts in sequencing have two objectives. One is to identify if there’s any variable that is associated with any change in an outcome, either transmission severity mortality or any other,” the DG said.

“And secondly to specifically look for at the variance of interest already identified in the UK and South Africa to be associated with these changes in transmission. So, in as much as the full effect of this mutation and others are still being studied the importance of a robust genomic surveillance system cannot be overemphasized,” he said.

Ihekweazu, while informing that 18 lineages have been detected in Nigeria since the pandemic, regretted that Nigeria lacks the capacity to carry out genomic surveillance to analyse the variants and properly understand the pandemic.

He said Nigeria will continue to draw lessons from South Africa and synergise with other countries on it.

The DG also noted that the emergence of new variants in them is not interesting and is not news. According to him, what is new is if one of those variants has been shown to be associated or correlated with an increase in transmission, increase in variability resistance to vaccination, or any other outcome indicators.

“Viruses mutate all the time and we will always have new variants, emerging while we do have genomic surveillance,” the DG said.

“And as we identify and report changes in the genomic genomes of pathogens such as COVID to that of public health interest, we really must learn from efforts in South Africa specifically where they have both done sequencing to scale, but also over time periods because it’s only when you do this over time that you can demonstrate change in the prevalence of one sequence one variant over another,” he said.

Also speaking, Matshidiso Moeti, World Health Organisation (WHO) director for Africa, said that while in 2020 Africa was spared much of the worst of COVID-19 with relatively fewer infections and cases and deaths compared to other regions of the world, the continent faces new threats from the virus in the new year, with an average daily new case count of more than 25,000 in the last 14 days.

“Africa is experiencing a second wave, which is higher, and the peak experienced last July,” Moeti said.

“We know that these numbers are likely to grow as the impact of holiday season, travel, and get together becomes evident; the continent has now topped 3 million cases, with over 72,000 lives, sadly lost. This is a stark reminder,” she said.

According to Moeti, now the virus is relentless, but it still presents a manifest threat and the war is far from won.

“However, preliminary analyses find the new variants circulating in South Africa to be more transmissible, and it appears to be driving the surge in new infections in the country and in the sub-region genomic sequencing, two variants present in three other countries, Botswana, Gambia, and Zambia. We think that it could be present in more countries than those deeper investigations are underway to fully understand the epidemiological implications.

“There are no indications the new variant increases the severity of the disease. There is also no conclusive evidence that is less than the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

“However, a virus that can spread more easily will of course put further strain on hospitals and health workers who are in many cases, already overworked and overstretched. There is still much to learn, and you will hear more from research on another new variant detected in Nigeria,” Moeti said.

Moeti further advised that it is important for countries to improve routine sequencing of SARS COVID to viruses, on the African continent to better monitor the emergence of variants and their subsequent spread across countries.

“When we know how the virus has changed, and fully understand the epidemiological and pathological significance of that change, we can adjust our response,” she said.

She said the WHO, together with the Africa CDC, has supported countries to step up genome sequencing through a network of specialized laboratories, while also helping in shipping samples, providing laboratory supplies, as well as technical guidance and mobilizing funds.

“While we continue to increase our knowledge of COVID-19, we do know how to stop these new and old variants of the virus. We must persist with a proven public health measure that helped to slow down the spread of the virus during the first wave, including masks and physical distancing,” Moeti advised.

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