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COVID-19: Only sequencing can determine if variants of concern are circulating in communities — Ihekweazu, NCDC D-G

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COVID-19: Edo records 103 new cases, 3 deaths in 72 hours, says official

*Says impact on vaccines, mortality, others yet unknown

By Chioma Obinna

As controversies continue to trail the different types of COVID-19 variants of concern globally, the Federal government has said that it is only through sequencing can Nigeria establish if any of these variants are circulating within the local communities.

Disclosing this through the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, government declared that the real impact of the variants on vaccines, therapeutics, diagnostics, mortality and symptoms are yet unknown.  

Meanwhile, in response to the variants of concern, the  NCDC has started developing a protocol to sequence samples among positive travellers to Nigeria, from the UK and South Africa.

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In an exclusive chat with Good Health Weekly, the Director-General of the NCDC, Dr Chikwe Ihekweazu, explained that scientists were working very hard to understand the variants of concern.

Explaining why the new variants are called “variants of concern”, Ihekweazu said the SARS-CoV-2 which causes the novel coronavirus disease is an RNA virus that randomly mutates all the time and has been doing so since the virus first emerged.

Ihekweazu lamented that the more virus that is circulating globally, the higher the chance of mutations arising.

“Over the last three months, a number of new variants have arisen which have had an impact on the epidemiology of the pandemic. This is why they are called variants of concern. 

“Scientists are still working on a better understanding of the impact of these variants, especially on vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics.

“We do not know yet if there is any specific impact on mortality rates or symptoms. In total, we have detected the B.1.1.7 variant in seven cases within Nigeria. 

“This is the variant of concern that first emerged in the UK. We are working with the African Centre for Genomics of Infectious Disease, Redeemers University, Ede, and other partners to sequence more samples from other parts of the country.”

Community transmission Ihekweazu stated that the variant cases detected may imply community transmission of the variant of concern, but there was the need to sequence more samples, in order to establish this.

On what the NCDC is doing as regards the variants,  Ihekweazu said: “Firstly, we started with developing a protocol to sequence samples among positive travellers to Nigeria, from the UK and South Africa.

“We are now scaling up our in-country sequencing capacity to sequence a representative number of samples from all states.

“We are including genomic surveillance as a key part of our response activities, to effectively understand the prevalence of these variants of concern in Nigeria.”

On the way forward, the NCDC boss maintained that the message to all remains adherence to known public health and social measures. He said there was no magic bullet with the variants of concern.

He advised Nigerians to avoid large gatherings, wash their hands regularly, wear a face mask properly and ensure physical distancing, adding that; “This will reduce the risk of spread of the virus.”  

Flattening the curve

 Speaking on the recent drop in new infections, Ihekweazu said it was too early to say that the country is “flattening the curve”, adding that they would continue to carry out more tests across the country.

“Recently, we introduced Antigen-bases Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs) in four hospitals in FCT. We are scaling up to more states so that health workers can be tested rapidly, and cases can be rapidly detected among patients who require specialised care such as surgery. 

Reacting to reports on COVID-19 response collapse, he said: “Just last week, about 40,000 tests were carried out. In the same week, two public laboratories were activated for testing in Gombe.  

“A team from NCDC completed the installation of new equipment and training of staff for COVID-19 PCR diagnosis at the Lawrence Henshaw Disease Hospital Laboratory. This laboratory was destroyed during riots in October 2020. 

“We have not only supported the state in restarting testing but also transitioned the laboratory from GeneXpert to PCR tests so that more tests can be carried out daily. 

“We will continue focusing our efforts on scaling up response activities, including testing, risk communications and others. Our goal has been to build sustainable structures that will serve the current pandemic and other infectious disease outbreaks,” he added.

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