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COVID-19: As Omicron variant creeps in on us

“At this point, we need to increase community testing, make sure that people are fully vaccinated. This is not just for civil servants alone but for all calibres of people. Also, it is important that we may continue to witness several mutations if we continue to have vaccination gap.”

-Prof. Marycelin Baba (a professor of medical virology at the University of Maiduguri)

When in July 2021 yours truly came up with the opinion essay titled: ‘COVID-19 Delta Variant: The time to act is now!’ it was with the scientific knowledge that all viruses are obligate parasites. That simply means that they cannot live on their own. They “lack the metabolic machinery of their own to generate energy or to synthesise proteins.” So they depend on the host cells to carry out these vital functions.

It is also significant to understand that as a virus replicates, its genes undergo random “copying errors”. These are referred to as ‘genetic mutations.’ With time, these genetic copying errors can lead to changes in the virus’ surface proteins or antigens. That indicates that a virus has the capacity to mutate into different variants with sundry debilitating health implications on their hosts. It should be stated that June Almeida was the first scientist to identify a coronavirus in 1964 while operating an electron microscope at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto, Canada. And in 1965 scientists discovered that the human coronavirus caused common cold.

As for the COVID-19 virus its presence came to the public sphere first on the 31st December 2019. Then the World Health Organisation (WHO) was informed of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in Wuhan City, China. A novel coronavirus was identified as the cause by Chinese authorities on 7th January 2020 and was temporarily named “2019-nCoV”. Then in July of 2021 WHO raised an alarm about the Delta variant which Dr. Mike Ryan of WHO described as “highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19” being “the fastest and fittest coronavirus strain that will ‘pick off’ the most vulnerable people. It has the potential ‘to be more lethal’ because it’s more efficient in the way it transmits between humans,”

This background information has become imperative for the readers to understand what we are up against. Now, in the 21st century world we have to battle the Omicron variant with mass enlightenment and the government’s political will to spend more energy and resources on preventive measures rather than cure. In fact, is there any lasting cure to the virus? That is the million-naira question. According to WHO, there is still no cure for Covid-19 although there “are ongoing clinical trials of both western and traditional medicine.”

For now, the panic-stirring headlines paint only part of the picture of the possibility of the B.1.1.529 SARS-COV-2 lineage also known as Omicron variant of COVID-19 becoming another global health challenge like the Delta variant was. One stated that: “COVID-19: Nigeria confirms Omicron variant, steps up vigilance.” Another admitted that: “Variant detected in three persons with travel history to South Africa, says NCDC” even as the last highlighted the fact that: “Contact tracing never effective, variant already in circulation – Virologists.” The experts stated these as Canada placed travel bans on Nigeria, Egypt and Malawi.#

Read also: Africa, Nigeria and COVID-19 vaccine injustice

The variant, named B.1.1.529 was first detected in Botswana on 11 November, although other cases have since been identified in South Africa and in a patient who travelled to Hong Kong from South Africa. In a statement released on 25 November, South Africa’s Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said that 22 positive cases had been identified so far, with further genome sequencing currently taking place that might identify others.

B.1.1.529 is known to contain 32 mutations in the gene for the coronavirus spike protein, compared to the original strain of SARS-CoV-2 first identified in Wuhan, China. Many of these mutations are also found in other Variants of Concern (VOCs), including the Delta variant, but many others are not. “Given the large number of mutations it has accumulated apparently in a single burst, it likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immune compromised person, that was possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient,” said Prof. Francois Balloux, Director of the University College London Genetics Institute, UK.

Indeed, the virologists, including Marycelin Baba (quoted in the introduction) recently expressed concern that there was a high risk of community transmission of Omicron variant of COVID-19 in the country. It has however, advised the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) to place less emphasis on contact tracing but more on the preventive measure of mass vaccination of the citizens.

They have called on the federal government to increase the vaccination rate, with the aim to prevent more mutations. According to Baba: “Engaging in contact-tracing a week after the samples were taken is a futile adventure and simply a waste of time. Contact tracing has never been effective. Do you know the number of places the person has been to? The variant is already in circulation and there is a high risk of community infections but how will we even know when we do not even engage in community testing?” Well said, one would add.

Furthermore, Nigerians have to come to the hard fact and bow to swallow the bitter pill that coronavirus is not going to go away with a wave of the hand anytime soon. If it has mutated from the 2019-nCoV to the Delta variant and currently the Omicron variant in less than two years, stranger ones may still be on their way. Ours is to play our part by wearing the nose masks, washing our hands regularly with soap and maintaining the policy of social distancing. It is for our own good.

As another professor of virology at the University of Ibadan, Professor Georgina Odaibo has rightly advised, we, members of the public should not let our guards down. Since we are being enlightened that this Omicron strain has several mutations, with the effects not yet fully known as researches continue it pays us to adhere strictly to the rules of prevention.

And the time is now for those who have not presented themselves for the vaccination to do so with the desired urgency. The assurance must however, be given by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) the vaccines approved are safe, without side effects. With the report that a coronavirus variant has been detected that contains a high number of mutations within its spike protein, some of which may help the virus to evade vaccine-induced immune protection, extra care has to be taken. That is, to guarantee that only the best of vaccines is made available to Nigerians while it should still remain free.

With world-acclaimed virologists claiming that new variants are constantly emerging, better surveillance systems will inevitably pick more of them up. That informs the need for the federal and state governments to make adequate funds available to the related health research institutes to do the needful. If it requires the request to the lawmakers to deliberate on supplementary budgets on health and logistics, so let it be.

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