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Concerns as new COVID-19 variants emerge

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NCDC inaugurates campaign ‘6232’ to raise public awareness, enquiries through its 24-7 Connect Centre
It is feared that COVID-19 might become uncontrollable as the virus continues to mutate into newer and deadlier variants.

It is believed that the spread of a new variant with heightened transmissibility and/or virulence can place more pressure on the healthcare system and ultimately result in a higher mortality rate. There is also a risk that new variants may undermine current vaccines and therapies, aimed at preventing or mitigating COVID-19, based on earlier strains.

In a new development, an interdisciplinary research team from Uganda and the United Kingdom (UK) has reported the emergence and spread of a new Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus type 2 (SARS-CoV-2) variant of the A lineage with multiple protein changes throughout the viral genome.

The researchers recently released their findings in a preprint on the medRxiv* server.

The researchers reported the emerging A sub-lineages, A.23 and A.23.1 of the SARS-COV-2.

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The research team reported the A.23.1 sub-lineage to be the major virus lineage now observed in the Kampala region in Uganda. This sub-lineage is reported to encode multiple spike proteins, nsp6 (nonstructural protein), ORF8 and ORF9 (open reading frames 8 and 9) protein changes. Some of these replacements are predicted to be functionally similar to those observed in lineage B variants of concern (VOCs).

MEANWHILE, a team of scientists from Germany has determined the efficacy of currently used therapeutics in treating newer variants of SARS-CoV-2, including the B.1.1.7 (UK), B.1.351 (South Africa) and B.1.1.248 (Brazil) variants. Their findings reveal that both B.1.351 and B.1.1.248 variants are able to escape humoural immune responses induced by therapeutic antibodies, vaccinations, or natural SARS-CoV-2 infection.

The study is currently available on the bioRxiv* preprint server.

New report has made policy recommendations on how to stay ahead of the variants, identify and manage current and future variants of concern.

Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, United States, released a new report on the status of SARS-CoV-2 surveillance, sequencing, and variant characterisation and actions the U.S. government should take to increase capacity to respond to new virus variants.

The three new concerning variants of SARS-CoV-2 could make the virus spread more easily or make therapeutics and vaccines for COVID-19 less effective. And as the pandemic unfolds, more variants will emerge and spread.

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The authors of the report, “Staying Ahead of the Variants: Policy Recommendations to Identify and Manage Current and Future Variants of Concern” wrote: “Although viral mutation is inevitable, it is possible to anticipate, manage and mitigate the threat to our collective public health. The key to staying ahead of a rapidly evolving virus is to maintain a continuous, systematic genomic surveillance and functional characterization capability that is able to rapidly detect and evaluate new variants of concern.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has listed two versions of the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, giving the green light for these vaccines to be rolled out globally through COVAX. The vaccines are produced by AstraZeneca-SKBio (Republic of Korea) and the Serum Institute of India.

Recent studies indicate trust in COVID vaccines is growing. Survey spanning several countries finds encouraging trends, but researchers warn vaccine hesitancy could slow pandemic recovery.

The survey of thousands of people in 15 countries has found attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccines seem to be improving in some parts of the world. Researchers have welcomed the results, which suggest that an increasing proportion of people are willing to be immunised. But they cautioned that some problems persist, such as concerns about vaccine safety.

The survey is part of the COVID-19 behaviour tracker, run by Imperial together with the United Kingdom (UK) market-research company YouGov. It ran from November 2020 to January 2021, polling around 13,500 people across Europe, Asia and Australia each time.

Meanwhile, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has announced the commencement of ‘Campaign 6232’. This is an activity to raise public awareness for the toll-free number ‘6232’ recently introduced by the Agency, for public enquiries through its 24-7 Connect Centre.

The campaign will use different means of communication to raise awareness of Nigerians on how to reach NCDC, with questions relating to infectious disease prevention, detection and control. Following an increasing need for Nigerians to communicate with the agency as part of the COVID-19 response, NCDC expanded its connect centre capacity in 2020. With support from the National Communication Commission, a short code 6232 has also been introduced.
Over the last one year, NCDC has been leading Nigeria’s public health response to COVID-19 pandemic.

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Under the leadership of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19, the Agency is working closely with the Federal Ministry of Health, relevant government institutions, national and international partners to improve its ability to respond to Nigerians in a timely and comfortable way.

Speaking on the campaign, the NCDC Director General, Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, reassured Nigerians of NCDC’s commitment to deliver on the institution’s mandate: “We are constantly developing and implementing innovative measures to make NCDC accessible to every Nigerian regardless of socio-economic status. We urge members of the public to use the ‘6232’ toll free number responsibly. Please support this campaign by sharing this information with your friends, family and colleagues.”

Meanwhile, Chairman, Presidential Task Force on COVID-19 (PTF) and Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Boss Mustapha, during a national media briefing said the process for accessing vaccines for Nigeria is still on course under the Coordination of the PTF in the same manner of the National Response on COVID-19. “While the Federal Ministry of Health and its relevant Agencies remain the lead facilitators, our goal remains to keep it safe and efficacious,” he said.

Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, said: “We have continued to work on the roll out of our COVID-19 vaccines, when they arrive. This morning, I inaugurated the Vaccine Coordination Committee, an Inter-ministerial, multi-sectoral committee to address diverse issues peculiar to COVID-19 vaccine acquisition by Nigeria. Their function is to advice on coordinating access to acquisition and distribution of vaccines when available, and on our immunisation strategy.”

Ehanire said the Ministry of Health also engaged The Africa Vaccine Acquisition Task Team (AVATT), who informed the country of the free allocation of 1.4 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines, of which 500,000 doses are expected by the end of this month, courtesy of MTN donation of seven million doses to Africa. He said the balance of 900,000 doses for Nigeria is expected by the end of March 2021. Other sources of vaccines are under negotiation.

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Ehanire said: “The National Agency For Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) has received dossiers for Sputnik V vaccine of Russia, Covishield or Astra Zeneca manufactured under license by Serum Institute of India, Covaxin by Bharat vaccines of India and the Sinopharm Vaccine of China, for evaluation and validation for use in Nigeria. Some of them are nearly ready for results.

“It is important to stress that all covid19 vaccines carry a certain amount of risk and any vaccines not approved by the Federal Ministry of Health through its Agencies cannot be used in Nigeria. The government will not be responsible for the safety or efficacy of vaccines given outside the framework of the Government. National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) has carefully calculated all the needs of Nigeria and it is possible to accommodate all interests in the framework.

“I received a message from His Excellency the High Commissioner of India, giving 100,000 AstraZeneca or Covishield vaccine doses, also by the Serum Institute of India, as a gift of the Government of India to Nigeria. The people of Nigeria appreciate these gestures of goodwill and partnership.

“With regard to the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, AVATT, Nigeria this morning completed her account opening, signed by two officials each, of the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance, Budget and National Planning, at Afrexim Bank as a requirement for access to vaccines on that platform, which will give Nigeria access to a much larger portfolio and variety of vaccines. Among the vaccines are the Johnson & Johnson single dose vaccine and as much of the Pfizer mRNA vaccines as we can manage. The COVID-19 Vaccine Coordinating Committee and NPHCDA’s strategy for vaccine delivery will advise the mix of vaccines that Nigeria will acquire.”

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