By HENRY OWINO
Recently, the Kenyan authorities have detected a new variant in the country which is a combination of both the “UK variant” Kappa, also known as B.1.1.7 and the “Indian variant” Delta, also called B.1.617 has become a concern as it spreads to various parts of the country, including Kisumu and Kilifi Counties.
The “UK variant” (B.1.1.7), three subtypes, or sublineages, of the “Indian variants” (B.1.617.1 or B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3), South African variant (B.1.351) among others are the variations of the virus that causes “China variant” Covid-19 (regular variant).
Experts have identified the three major subtypes, or sublineages, of the “Indian” variant: B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2, and B.1.617.3 now known as Delta variant (B.1.617.) So, the “UK variant” B.1.1.7 and “South African variant” B.1.351, the “Indian variant” B.1.617 are just another variations of the virus that causes COVID-19.
The variant was first detected in India last October, 2020 and has since spread to more than 40 countries worldwide. Each sublineage is slightly different, but all have spike protein mutations that have been associated with increased transmissibility. The spike protein is what coronaviruses use to gain entry into human cells.
It is for these reasons, there are growing fears among Africans especially in the Great Lakes region that B.1.617 variant is highly transmissible and deadlier than known Covid-19 variant, and could slowly be infiltrating various African countries. This comes at a time when many countries in Africa are struggling to administer vaccination to its citizens against the already existing Covid-19 strain.
As the fear of contracting this new variant grips nations, African Science Media Centre (AfriSMC), reached out to Prof Walter Jaoko, Director of KAVI-Institute of Clinical Research, who puts all sorts of allegations, misinformation or misconception concerning the new variant into perspective.
Prof Jaoko, a Medical Microbiologist and Expert in Tropical Medicine at University of Nairobi said there is no cause of alarm over the new variant but people must continue with the usual containment measures to avert the spread. He argued the new variant is just a mutation of the regular Covid-19 not a new virus, hence the normal suppression control mechanisms and available vaccines are good enough measures to work against the variant, as for so many variants.
Prof Jaoko made the remarks while addressing journalists during a virtual press briefing convened AfriSMC. The Medical Microbiologists Expert emphasized that mutation of the virus to various forms makes it even much easier for the vaccines to fight it. He alluded the virus mutations weakens itself against the vaccines thereby protecting an individual from severe
“The mutation confuses virus genetic code thereby weakening it while make the vaccination remains much active and protects an individual from the virus mutant attack,” Prof Jaoko explained. So, people should not fear or panic about the new variant or mutations of the Covid-19 to various forms,” he emphasized.
According to Prof Jaoko, the current vaccines available in the market such as AstraZeneca, Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson among others have been tested and approved to be capable of providing immunity against COVID-19 and its mutant forms.
“The vaccines went through all phases of trails as required in any health research by world health organization (WHO). The only people who were not tested with the vaccine are pregnant women and bread-feeding mothers otherwise the vaccines are safe and protect lives,” Prof Jaoko clarified.
There may be COVID-19 vaccine skepticism in some parts of Africa and the world. In Kenya, people are eager to get protected against the virus. This shows some countries in the region are well-prepared to contain community spread of the virus and to save lives.
Prof Jaoko regretted hoarding of COVID-19 vaccines by manufacturing countries which could lead to high demand causing major catastrophes to African countries. He also decried the unfair distribution of the vaccines saying while a country like Seychelles had vaccinated up to 70 per cent of its populace, with others like the USA, UK and Canada reaching over 30 per cent with vaccines to go round three to four times their population, Africa is still trailing behind with only about two per cent of its populace currently vaccinated.
He pointed out that though the number of people who need to be vaccinated in Africa was very low compared to the infections in the western world, controlling COVID-19 infection globally would reduce the transmission rate in the world.
“Hoarding the COVID-19 vaccines is not in the best interest of the world because controlling the pandemic in the western/developed countries only is a disadvantage which can lead to the infection of new variants,” Prof Jaoko asserted. Adding, “Making the vaccines accessible to Africa would reduce global infection and reduce emergence of new mutants/variants,”
Director of KAVI-Institute of Clinical Research therefore called for the establishment of regional vaccine manufacturing centres in Africa. He recommended the regional centre should not be restricted to COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing alone but may include other vaccines for other diseases as well as to prepare the continent for the outbreak of future pandemics.
He suggested the move should be spearheaded by the African Union (AU) mobilizing the regional blocks to leverage on their strengths, manpower, researchers and resources to develop vaccines rather than starting from the scratch.
Acknowledging that African countries may be unable to develop vaccines individually because of lack of infrastructure and the required massive capital needed to finance vaccine manufacturing, Prof Jaoko proposed for a regional block approach that would give the continent better chance of coming up with a viable research output.
Prof Jaoko maintained that vaccines are safe, and urged Africa not to put off getting vaccinated but proceed with the vaccination, saying vaccines are life-saving and prevent severe diseases.