COVID-19: Ruthless South Africa variant hits Ghana, Togo, 21 others, says WHO

The B.1.351 variant of the coronavirus, first found in South Africa, is spreading in 23 African countries, the World Health Organisation has said.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with Sunday PUNCH on Saturday, the WHO Regional Virologist, Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, noted that the strain presented the same symptoms such as fever, cough, headache, and breathing difficulty, among others, regular with the original COVID-19.

Gumede-Moeletsi also listed the affected Africa countries to include Kenya, Cameroon, Cote D’ ívoire, Malawi, Mauritius, Togo, Botswana, Comoros, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Ghana, South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Equatorial Guinea, Seychelles and Tanzania.

The Nigerian Medical Association and health experts have, however, called for caution among Nigerians and the Federal Government as the strain hit neighbouring countries.

She said, “The symptoms for any variant or even the original coronavirus are still the same; cough, headache, fever etc. They are still the same as we know from the beginning of the pandemic.’’

Gumede-Moeletsi noted that social distancing, hand washing and wearing of face masks were recommended as preventive measures to curb the spread of the variant in the affected countries.

“The cases have decreased in South Africa. It indicates that the country has managed to contain the virus.  There is a decrease in the number of hospitalisations and severe cases. The country is doing a tremendous job in controlling the spread of this particular strain.’’

Earlier, The WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said during a virtual press conference during the week facilitated by the APO Group that new variants placed the continent at risk of a third wave.

He said, “The B.1.617 variant that was first found in India has been reported in at least one African country. The B.1.351 strain, first found in South Africa, is spreading in 23 African countries and the B1.1.7 strain, first found in the United Kingdom, has been found in 20 countries.

“With new variants circulating, low vaccination levels, population fatigue in adhering to preventive measures, and easing of restrictions, the conditions are present for a resurgence. The tragedy in India does not have to happen in Africa, but we must all be on the highest possible alert. Governments must maintain strong surveillance and detection systems, reassess and bolster their treatment capacities, step up the supply of critical medicines, including medical oxygen and ensure there are enough beds for severely ill patients.”

In his comment, a Professor of Virology and Chairman, Expert Review Committee on COVID-19, Prof Oyewale Tomori, said as the strain discovered in South African entered Nigeria’s neighbouring countries, the country must improve its surveillance at the borders.

He said, “It is a bit of a surprise that we have not yet reported the South African variant 501.V2/B.1.351. But with the variant already reported in Ghana, Togo, and Cameroon. I think all we need is for Nigeria to report the variant.

“Nigeria is boxed in to receive the variant through our porous borders. Therefore, it is a matter of great concern, especially when we know that the variant contributed to the large number of cases in South Africa early this year. More worrying is the fact that the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine we are using in Nigeria is less effective against the variant.

“Therefore, we need to be on the alert [by ensuring] real-time testing by our labs to detect the variant if it gets in. We need better monitoring of incoming passengers plus improved surveillance and contact tracing.”

Tomori also urged the citizens to adhere to safety protocols such as the wearing of face masks, avoiding large gatherings, keeping social distancing, and regular washing of hands.

He added, “It is left to us to limit the spread of the variant should it arrive in Nigeria. Also, the government has requested enhanced vigilance at our borders. It is left for the immigration and customs officers to ensure that those identified as high-risk people are thoroughly checked and followed up. It is more of our duty and responsibility.’’

The Wall Street Journal reported that the South African variant worried scientists because of its unusually large number of mutations, especially in the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to and infect human cells. It noted that the spike protein was the part of the virus targeted by COVID-19 vaccines and antibody treatments.

Noting that new cases had dropped since the variant peaked in January, the journal added that South African researchers had said that B.1.351 might be around 50 per cent more contagious, based on the much faster rate of COVID-19 transmission since its emergence and biological studies of changes to the structure of the virus, appearing to make it easier for it to attach to and infect human cells. According to it, the researchers say the variant doesn’t appear to lead to more severe cases of coronavirus.