The new variant of the coronavirus currently causing panic and concern in the United Kingdom and the European Union 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.
The new variant, detected in the UK in September and dubbed “lineage B.1.1.7” has triggered the current exponential spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in the larger path of the United Kingdom, leading to a travel ban on the UK by some countries and a stay-at-home tier-4 level restriction in the affected paths of the country.
Now, scientists at the Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases at Ede, in South West Nigeria, said Monday, through a publication in Virological, a website for the global Genomics community, that 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, also from Osun State, was collected in October correspondingly showed the presence of this new variant.
According to Christian Happi, Professor of molecular biology and genomics who is also the Director at the Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), “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.”
Although Nigeria has in December recorded a rise in the number of cases and an increase in deaths, Mr Happi told PREMIUM TIMES in an interview that he cannot credit the new variant for this rise as it was last seen in October and at the time, there was no surge in the number of cases.
“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,” he said.
Should this be a case for panic and worry for Nigerians? Mr. Happi’s team made a case for caution, warning that although the new variant might not be responsible for the rise in cases, that could change when new samples are sequenced.
“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.”
“In as much as the full effect of this mutation isn’t known yet and it is still being studied, the importance of a robust genomic surveillance system cannot be overemphasized as we can identify and report changes in the genomes of pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2 that are of public health interest,” the report said.
From the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), the Director General, Chikwe Ihekweazu, in a tweet on Sunday, said, “while we study data in Nigeria and await additional guidance from @WHO on new strains causing COVID19, travelers MUST implement travel protocol.”
Federal authorities responded to the development by ordering 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, according to the chairman of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Boss Mustapha, while speaking at its briefing on Monday.
Also following the announcement of the identification of the new variant of the coronavirus in the UK, countries have begun to issue travel ban at varying degrees.
These countries include the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Austria, Bulgaria, Turkey, Switzerland and Canada as the most recent as of the time of filing this report.
The BBC reported that top health officials said that there was no evidence the new variant was more deadly or would react differently to vaccines, but it was proving to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new strain “was out of control. We have got to get it under control”, admitting that this was “an incredibly difficult end to frankly an awful year”, the report said.
The BBC has also reported that It was first detected in September. In November around a quarter of cases in London were the new variant. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.
The WHO has said it is in close contact with the UK adding that the same strain has been identified in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia.
There are rising concerns on whether the mutation in the virus will affect the vaccines. Scientists, however, have said the new variant will have no effect on the vaccine although a close watch has to be kept.
“It stands to reason that this mutation isn’t a threat, but you never know. We still have to be diligent and continue to look,” said Nelson Michael, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.
A presentation by David Robertson, from the University of Glasgow, on Friday, concluded: “The virus will probably be able to generate vaccine escape mutants.”
Vaccine escape happens when the virus changes so it dodges the full effect of the vaccine and continues to infect people.
Additionally, “the amount of evidence in the public domain is woefully inadequate to draw strong or firm opinions on whether the virus has truly increased transmission,” said Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham.
The European Council meeting of government representatives is expected to take place Tuesday at 10:00 GMT. The speed at which governments have announced their bans on travellers from the UK shows the scale of the alarm, the BBC’s Gavin Lee in Brussels reported.