By Sharon Atieno

With COVID-19 variants still posing a global public health threat, African countries have been urged to submit real-time sequenced data of the virus to global databases.

Racheal Achila, Technical Officer, Laboratory Emergency Preparedness and Response Program, World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa said during a cross-border Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture (MESHA) cafe.

According to Achila, though the capacity of the African countries to perform sequencing has increased from 5,000 in 2020 to 35,000 in 2022, there is a lag in the timely submission of this data to WHO and other global databases.

She said real-time data gives a clear representation of what is happening presently and enables countries to better prepare on what measures to take.

This follows a recent detection of the new Omicron subvariant XBB1.5 from about 38 countries according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The highest prevalence is in the United States where it accounts for more than 40% of the COVID-19 cases being reported.

In Africa, the subvariant has been reported only in Botswana and South Africa.

According to the WHO advisory group, XBB.1.5 may contribute to increases in case incidence based on its genetic characteristics and early growth rate estimates.

According to Achila, the new subvariant is of interest because it is 76% faster in growth than others and susceptible to immune escape even in people who have received booster vaccines.

“This means that being infected by one subvariant doesn’t mean you can’t be infected by the next one,” she explained, adding that vaccination seems to be the only way to avoid severe disease and death.

Subvariants keep emerging and disappearing depending on how fit they are, Achila said, noting that this makes it very hard to keep track of them. In the last few months, there have been about 500 Omicron subvariants reported across the world including Africa.

“The virus keeps changing and we have to keep monitoring to be able to be on top of things so that we don’t get surprised,” she urged.