WHO calls for greater surveillance as new COVID-19 variants emerge in Africa

Mandatory Credit: Photo by SALVATORE DI NOLFI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10548943o)Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), informs the media about the current situation regarding the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV), during a press conference, at the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, 05 February 2020.WHO informs about the current situation regarding the novel coronavirus, Geneva, Switzerland - 05 Feb 2020

By Cecilia Ologunagba

Abuja, Dec. 31, 2020 The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged African countries to boost genomic surveillance and analysis as new COVID-19 variants emerge in the region, according to an announcement on the WHO Regional Office for Africa website.

It stated that with the recent emergence in the region of new COVID-19 variants, which appear to have higher transmissibility, WHO is urging countries to undertake increased surveillance and analysis.

“WHO calls on countries to boost surveillance and analysis through the African genome sequencing laboratory network, to detect any new mutations and strengthen the efforts to curb the pandemic.

“South Africa recently detected a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, which appears to transmit more easily and is likely linked to the ongoing surge of COVID-19 infections in the country.

“Further analysis is underway to determine the full epidemiological significance of this mutation. Nigeria is also carrying out more investigations on a variant identified in samples collected in August and October.’’

The statement quoted Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, as saying, “the emergence of new COVID-19 variants is common. However, those with higher speed of transmission or potentially increased pathogenicity are of great concern.

“Crucial investigations are underway to comprehensively understand the behaviour of the new mutant virus and steer response accordingly.’’

In September 2020, WHO and the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention launched a network of 12 laboratories in Africa, to reinforce genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2.

As at Dec. 23, 2020, 4,948 sequences had been produced in the region, representing just two per cent of the 295, 101 sequences done so far worldwide.

According to the statement, South Africa, which has carried out most of the 4,948 sequences, has identified 35 SARS-CoV-2 lineages, and Nigeria 18.

“Grouping viruses from different countries into the same lineage or sub-lineage shows linkage or importation of viruses between countries.

“The WHO Regional Office for Africa is providing technical guidance and mobilising additional financial support to speed up the genomic sequencing in most countries.

“The office is also assisting in shipping samples to regional reference laboratories from countries that do not have specialised diagnostic facilities.’’

The statement further quoted Moeti, as saying, “while surveillance and detection of COVID-19 are critical components of the response to the pandemic, public health measures also are key.

“Public health measures such as handwashing, physical distancing and wearing of masks remain key to limiting infection; the current preventive measures are effective even on the new SARS-CoV-2 variants.”

In addition, the UN health agency stated that the new variants had emerged as COVID-19 infections were on the rise in the 47 countries in the WHO African region, nearly reaching the peak seen in July.

“In the past 28 days, Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda have reported the highest number of new cases”, accounting for 90 per cent of all the infections in the region, the agency said.

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