In late December 2020, about a year after the first case of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) was recorded in Wuhan, China, new variants have been discovered causing heads to spin about its impact.
Governments the world over are worried these new variants may erode the gains made in fighting the virus and further worsen the devasting impact the pandemic has had on their countries.
The new variant is reported to have been recorded in about 60 countries globally across Europe, Asia, Africa and North and South America.
In Africa, South Africa, Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Sudan, Ghana, among others have recorded some of these new variants which have come with increase hospitalisation, high infectious rates and pressure on medical resources.
Though information about the new variants is sketchy, scientists say they are working assiduously to identify how easily it might spread, whether it could cause severe illness and whether authorized vaccines could protect people against them.
The Centre for Disease Control of the United States has recently said there’s no scientific evidence that these variants could cause more severe illness or increase the risk of death. The CDC, however, added that due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the new variants may bring further pressure on the already scarce healthcare resources and the less attention people who test positive may be given may lead to increased risk of death.
Here’s what is known
Scientists say the new variants is a mutation of the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus. But what does that mean?
A mutation is the change in the virus’ genome: the set of genetic instructions that contain all the information that the virus needs to function according to gavi.org.
According to scientists, this mutation occurs all the time and most of the time, it does not have any impact on the risk the virus poses for humans. However, in few situations, depending on how and where the mutation occurs in the genome, the virus can become more dangerous.
Why should the new variants be a cause for concern?
A study by some Professors at Imperial College, London on the new variants concluded that though much more research is needed, one possibility is that in some people, P.1(the new variant in UK) eludes the human immune response, making it more infectious.
The study added that scientists are specifically worried about 501Y.V2, a variant detected in South Africa because it contains mutations, including ones named E484K and K417N, that have been shown in the lab to reduce the ability of antibodies to combat the virus.
Virologist Angela Rasmussen of Georgetown University has also said the biggest concern of the new variants is its increased transmissibility rate.
In the United Kingdom (UK) for example, a new variant called B.1.1.7 has emerged with an unusually large number of mutations. This variant was first detected in September 2020 and is now highly prevalent in London and southeast England. Aside England, it has been detected in numerous countries around the world, including the United States and Canada.
The first African Country to have identified a new variant is South Africa, with a variant called 1.351 much different from the variant detected in the UK (B.1.1.7). This variant, originally detected in early October, shares some mutations with other variants detected in the UK.
In Brazil, a variant called P.1 emerged and was recognised in four travelers who were identified through a routine screening at Haneda airport outside Tokyo, Japan. This variant contains a set of additional mutations that may affect its ability to be recognized by antibodies.
The Africa Center for Disease Control said its preliminary analyses revealed that the new variants are more sticky and comes with increased transmissibility, confirming the study by Imperial College, London.
Salim Abdool Karim, one of South Africa’s leading infectious disease experts, said the coronavirus mutation first identified in South Africa late last year is 50% more contagious than previous strains.
Also, a senior research fellow with the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens (WACCBIP) at the University of Ghana, Dr. Peter Kojo Quashie, has revealed in an interview that the new variants identified in Ghana are similar to those in the UK and South Africa.
What is the Government of Ghana doing?
Director-General of the Ghana Health Service, Dr. Patrick Kuma-Aboagye in an interview with the media said new variants have been identified among arriving passengers at the Kotoka International Airport some days ago.
This was also confirmed by President Akuffo-Addo in his latest address on measures being taken to curb the virus. He added that “all passengers with the new variants are in isolation whilst Scientists work to sequence the genome and to determine the presence and extent of spread of the new variants in the general population”.
Will the Vaccines work against the new variants?
At least for now, Scientists have assured that the vaccines are effective against the new variants.
Vaccinologist Philip Krause, who chairs a WHO working group on COVID-19 vaccines, said so far, the virus does not appear to have become resistant to COVID-19 vaccines. At a WHO press briefing last week, Krause said if the rapid evolution of these variants suggest that it is possible for the virus to evolve into a vaccine-resistant phenotype, which may happen sooner than expected, the existing vaccines will be updated.
Virologists say ‘vaccine escape’ happens when the virus changes so much that it dodges the full effect of the vaccine and continues to infect people. They warn that such “immune escapes” could mean more people who have had COVID-19 remain susceptible to reinfection, and that proven vaccines may, at some point, need an update.
An article authored by BBC’s Health and Science Correspondent, James Gallagher, explaining the new variants noted that Vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus, so even though part of the spike has mutated, the vaccines should still work.
Do the new variants call for change in the precautionary measures?
No. Scientists say there’s no evidence yet that biologically these strains are different in ways that would require any change in current applicable recommendations meant to limit the spread of the virus: wearing face mask, frequent hand washing with soap under running water, sanitizing one’s hand, social or physical distancing, avoiding crowded places and reporting to the nearest clinic after experiencing any or all the symptoms of the coronavirus disease.