NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) – Another new variant of the coronavirus appears to have emerged in Nigeria, Africa’s top public health official said Thursday, but added that further investigations are needed.
The discovery could raise the alarm in the pandemic after similar variants were announced in Britain and South Africa, leading to the rapid return of restrictions on international travel and other measures, just as the world enters a major holiday season.
“It is a separate line from the United Kingdom and South Africa,” John Nkengasong, head of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters. He said Nigeria’s CDC and the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in that country – the most populous in Africa – will analyze more samples.
“Give us some time … it’s still too early,” he said.
The warning about the apparent new variant was based on two or three genetic sequences, he said, but that and South Africa’s warning at the end of last week were enough to motivate an emergency meeting of Africa’s CDC this week.
The variant was found in two patient samples collected on August 3 and October 9 in Osun state, Nigeria, according to a research article published by The Associated Press.
Unlike the variant seen in the UK, “we have not seen such a rapid increase in strain in Nigeria and we have no evidence to indicate that the P681H variant is contributing to the increase in virus transmission in Nigeria. However, the relative difference in the scale of genomic surveillance in Nigeria compared to the UK may imply reduced power to detect these changes, ”says the newspaper.
The news comes at a time when infections are increasing again in parts of the African continent.
The new variant in South Africa is now the predominant one there, said Nkengasong, as confirmed infections in the country approach 1 million. Although the variant is transmitted quickly and viral loads are higher, it is still unclear whether it leads to more serious illness, he said.
“We believe that this mutation will have no effect” on the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines on the continent, he said of the South Africa variant.
South Africa’s health minister announced on Wednesday an “alarming rate of spread” in that country, with more than 14,000 new cases confirmed the previous day, including more than 400 deaths. It was the biggest increase in cases in a single day.
The country has more than 950,000 infections and COVID-19 is “relentless”, said Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize.
The African continent now has more than 2.5 million confirmed cases, or 3.3% of global cases. Infections across the continent have increased by 10.9% in the past four weeks, said Nkengasong, including an increase of 52% in Nigeria and 40% in South Africa.
For the first time since confirmation of the first virus case in Sub-Saharan Africa in February, Nigeria is in the spotlight during this pandemic, as infections increase.
“In the past few weeks, we have seen a huge increase in the number of samples for the CDC reference laboratory in Nigeria,” tweeted the CDC’s director general, Chikwe Ihekweazu, on Thursday. “This has led to an unusual delay in testing, but we are working continuously”, with many colleagues shortening their vacation and going back to work.
Nigeria now has more than 80,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus.
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