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What you need to know about the new, deadlier variant of COVID-19 now found in Nigeria

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Nigeria, like the United Kingdom (UK) and other European countries is currently experiencing a new surge in the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases.

Last week, the country recorded more new COVID-19 cases than it had at any other week since the first case of the virus was recorded in February, 2020. According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), as of Monday , December 21, 2020, Nigeria has a total of 78, 790 cases.

About four days ago, the country registered its latest highest daily figure of 1,145. Before the resurgence of the infections in December, Nigeria never had more than 745 daily infections which was the highest reported on June 19, 2020.

New variant of COVID-19

A new variant of coronavirus (COVID-19) has been identified and referred to as the B.1.1.7 lineage by some experts.This new variant was first detected in September and by November, around a quarter of cases in London were the new variant. In December, it went up to nearly two-thirds of cases.

Following the announcement of the identification of the new variant of the coronavirus in the UK, countries have begun to issue travel bans at varying degrees.

This new variant or strain is believed to be as a result of mutation by the virus. According to a report by the British Broadcasting Commission (BBC), two notable sets of mutation have been identified and both are found in the crucial spike protein. The first is mutation N501, which alters a part of the spike, known as the “receptor-binding domain” and the second is a H69/V70 deletion that has emerged several times before.

This new variant of the coronavirus has been identified in Nigeria by scientists at the Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), at the Redeemers University in Ede, Osun State.

These scientists said they found the same variant “lineage B.1.1.7” existing in Osun State Nigeria since August 3rd when the first sample was collected. Another sample collected in  Osun State in October also showed the presence of this new variant.

Christian Happi, a Professor of molecular biology and genomics who is also the Director at the Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), in an interview with Premium Times, said this predates the discovery in the UK.

“the B.1.1.7 lineage we found in Nigeria, predating the one described in the UK, has also been observed to rise rapidly in the UK over the past four weeks, indicating the plausible increased spread of the virus by specific non-synonymous mutations in the spike protein,”Prof. Happi said

New variant and testing in Nigeria

In response to these new trends on Monday December 21, 2020, the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19  ordered the immediate closure of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants across the country. The number of guests at weddings, conferences, among others have also been limited to 50 persons, 

The federal government asked states to ensure the closure of all bars, nightclubs and restaurants across the country for an initial period of five weeks excluding restaurants providing services to hotel residents.

The new variant is believed to partly affect the efficiency of testing. While there are two different types of tests for COVID-19: one is the diagnostic test and the other is the antibody test.

There are also different test kits and services for COVID-19 to suit different testing scenarios and budgets. These are; PCR, Antigen, Antibody, Saliva, Nasopharyngeal, blood finger prick, serum, and plasma.

One of the mutations in the new variant is said to affect one of three genomic targets used by some PCR tests. This means that in those tests, that target area, or “channel”, would come up negative.

Since PCR tests generally detect more than one gene target, a mutation in the spike protein only partly affects the test, reducing the risk of false negative results.

Robert Shorten, an expert in microbiology at the Association for Clinical Biochemistry & Laboratory Medicine said this has affected the ability of some tests to detect the virus.

Do vaccines stand a chance against this new variant?

While this new variant is still novel and studies are currently ongoing to understand it, scientists believe there is no evidence that vaccines (Pfizer) currently being deployed in the UK or other COVID-19 shots will not protect against this variant.

According to Adam Finn, a vaccine specialist and professor of paediatrics at the Bristol University, it is unlikely that this will have anything more than a minor, if any, effect on the vaccine’s effectiveness

Similarly, Julian Tang, a professor and clinical virologist at the Leicester University, said they are not seeing any gross changes in the spike protein that will reduce vaccine effectiveness so far.

Also, Britain’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, said COVID-19 vaccines appear to be adequate in generating an immune response to the variant of the coronavirus.

Should you be worried?

While increase in infection cases in the UK has been linked to the new variant which Is believed to spread by 70% more, in Nigeria there has been no link between the new variant and the new surge in cases.

Professor Christian Happi in the report noted that the new variant cannot be linked to the new surge of cases as it was last seen in October and at the time, there was no surge in the number of cases. He, however, noted this may change when new samples are sequenced.

While no direct link has been found between the new variant and the increasing number of cases in Nigeria, Mr Happi and his team, however, speak on the need for caution.

 “We however haven’t observed such rapid rise of the lineage in Nigeria and do not have sufficient evidence to indicate that the B.1.1.7 lineage is contributing to increased transmission of the virus in Nigeria”.

“At the moment, only about 1% of the genomes from Nigeria belong to the new SARS-CoV-2 variant (B.1.1.7 lineage) and one of them predates the first description in the UK. However, this might change in the next few weeks when we sequence more samples from the recently reported surge of covid-19 in Nigeria” they announced, noting that, “other reported mutations such as the N501Y, A570D, and the HV 69 – 70 deletion in the spike protein have not been detected in our genomes yet, this could also be associated with the non-increase of the lineage in Nigeria currently.”

Excerpt of Prof. Happi’s comment on the link between the new variant and the surge in cases.

Conclusion

With the identification of the new variant and the effect it is causing in the UK, it is pertinent to take caution and stick to COVID-19 safety measures/protocols while the full effect of this mutation is being studied by adhering to Safety measures by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the NCDC, like wearing a mask, use of hand sanitizers, social distancing etc.

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