January Roundup: New COVID-19 Variant Emerges, Misinformation on Vaccines Debunked

A year after the first cases of Covid-19 were reported, three new variants of the virus which are mutation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus, have been detected in more than 60 countries worldwide. The three variants namely B.1.1.7 strain also known as the United Kingdom strain as it was discovered in the UK, the 1.351 also known as the South African strain as it was first discovered in the country and finally the P.1 from Brazil were all discovered in late 2020 and according to the African Center for Disease Control analyses these new variants are stickier and comes with increased transmissibility. In Ghana, according to the Ghana Health Service, two out of the three variants or strains have been detected.

In the month of January, Fact-Check Ghana through its review on published materials on these new variants found that the UK variant is likely to be more infectious. This was confirmed through a study by Researchers at Imperial College, London that one possibility is that in some people, P.1(the new variant in UK) eludes the human immune response, making it more infectious.  Fact-check Ghana noted from President Akufo-Addo’s COVID-19 updates that some of these new variants were detected at the Kotoka International Airport and carriers of the new variants are in isolation in order for scientist to sequence and determine the extent of spread among the general population.

Fact-Check Ghana further noted, contrary to claims on some platforms, that the already approved COVID-19 vaccines is effective against the new variants as vaccine escape, situation where viruses mutate so much that vaccines are ineffective on them, has not yet happened. Fact-check Ghana also noted that despite the emergence of the new variants there is no need to depart from the protocols already in place meant to combat the spread of the virus.

In the same month (January), false claims that Remdesivir is a COVID-19 vaccine for only Africa emerged, the second time the false claim had come up. Specifically, popular Ghanaian comedian Derrick Kwabena Bonney (DKB) posted photos of the Remdesivir drug on his social media pages on January 13, 2021, with a narrative suggesting that the medication is one of the newly developed COVID-19 vaccines that is being tested in only Africa and not in America and Europe.

Fact-Check Ghana verified the claim and concluded that Remdesivir  Covifor is not a COVID-19 vaccine and not only used in Africa.

The Vaccine is an anti-viral drug developed by the American biopharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences. The drug which was originally developed in 2009 to treat hepatitis C and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) was later repurposed and studied as a potential treatment for Ebola virus disease and Marburg virus infections, However in 2020, the drug proved effective in stopping the replication of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It was therefore approved and authorised for emergency use in October 2020 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of COVID-19.

Fact-Check Ghana noted that the rationale behind the limitation of the usage of drug in low- and middle-income countries is that generic drugs are sold at significantly lower prices than their branded equivalents produced by the originator companies. This is because the generic companies incur fewer costs (only production cost without costs like drug discovery and drug development).  Allowing the generic products to be distributed beyond the specific countries would disrupt the markets against the originator company and ensure the generic companies make abnormal profits.

Not only is Remdesivir Covifor is a medication associated with COVID-19, it is only used in disease’s treatment (post infection) and not as a preventive medication or a vaccine (pre-infection). Also, while specific generic Remdesivir Covifor is limited to be it used only in Africa and other developing countries, the drug is equally used across the world including the US and Europe.

Finally, in the month of January, Fact-check Ghana verified the claim made in a video trending on various social media platforms across Africa January 14, 2021, where the former Vice President of Zambia, Nevers Mumba cautioned the government of Zambia to not accept any vaccine until “strenuous validation and verification is done”. The video claimed that the anti-viral drug Remdesivir Covifor was a COVID-19 vaccine, a misinformation Fact-check Ghana had already debunked.

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