By Sharon Atieno
As Ghana receives its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines from the COVAX Facility with Cote d’ivoire set to be second, followed by another set of 24 countries, new strains of the virus is a reality that scientists will have to deal with.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the emergence of new, more contagious SARS-CoV-2 variants is reinforcing the need to step up genomic surveillance.
Last year, South Africa detected the 501Y.V2 (also known as B1.351) variant which has been linked to the country’s recent surge in COVID-19 infections.
The same variant has now been identified in eight other African countries. Meanwhile, the variant initially identified in the United Kingdom (VOC202012/01) has been found in six countries in the continent, WHO says.
Recently, Nigeria also discovered a new strain, B.1.2.5, which is different from the highly infectious B.1.1.7, the UK variant. This new variant has been detected in other 15 countries and has been observed to have similar mutations with the B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and P.1 variants first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, respectively.
Virus genome sequencing enabled the world to rapidly identify SARS-CoV-2 and allowed rapid development of diagnostic tests and other tools for the response as well as to monitor the evolution of COVID-19 and adjust response accordingly.
In Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in September 2020 launched network of 12 laboratories to reinforce genome sequencing of the virus. To date, 7891 sequences had been produced in the region, up from around 5000 in December 2020.
Genomic sequences can help in the design of diagnostic assays, drugs and vaccines and in monitoring whether hypothetical changes in their efficacy over time might be attributable to changes in the virus genome.
Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 virus genomes, WHO observes, can therefore complement, augment and support strategies to reduce the burden of COVID-19.