FG Allays Concerns over New COVID-19 Strain

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Sani Aliyu

•Imposes fresh requirements on UK, S’Africa travellers
•Africa CDC: Nigeria’s variant different from UK, S’Africa’s

Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Olawale Ajimotokan in Abuja, Eromosele Abiodun and Nume Ekeghe in Lagos

The federal government yesterday allayed fears over the discovery of a new variant of COVID-19 virus in Nigeria.
A senior official of the Federal Ministry Health told THISDAY that the new COVID-19 variant has not yet become a major threat.

Also, the National Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Dr. Sani Aliyu, has said that the PTF is in touch with Professor Christian Happi, who alongside Ify Aniebo led a group to carry out a study, where they found that the United Kingdom’s ‘lineage B.1.1.7,’ a mutant variant of the virus, has been existing in Nigeria for months.
However, the Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, has said the federal government will commence the first tranche of COVID-19 vaccinations nationwide in the first quarter of 2021.

He also said it has not been confirmed if the strain discovered in the United Kingdom and other countries is in Nigeria.
Earlier yesterday, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), John Nkengasong, had told reporters that the new variant of COVID-19 found in Nigeria was a separate lineage from the strains in the United Kingdom and South Africa.

The ministry official, who craved anonymity because he had no official clearance to speak on the matter, said since the variant was first spotted in Nigeria in August, it had not shown any kind of quick spread unlike the earlier version.
“We are taking measures to monitor the new COVID-19 variant. We are still in the process of indentifying the strains of the new virus. As you know that the variant that was noticed in the United Kingdom, was first spotted in the country in August, but there was no spike at that time,” he added.

According to him, the government at the moment doesn’t see the new COVID-19 strain as a major health threat.
“The new COVID-19 variant doesn’t appear to pose any threat,” he stated.
However, he said the federal government is not taking chances on the matter, adding that “measures have been taken by the Federal Ministry of Health and the Nigeria Centre to Disease Control (NCDC) to monitor and track its occurrence and to report back for appropriate action.”

Nigeria’s New Variant Different from UK, S’Africa Versions, Says CDC

Announcing the discovery of the new virus variant at a press briefing in Nairobi, Kenya, the head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), John Nkengasong, told reporters it is of a different lineage from the UK and South Africa’s versions.
A report by Associated Press (AP) quoted Nkengasong as saying that the NCDC and the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases in Nigeria will be analysing more samples.

The discovery could add to new alarm in the pandemic after similar variants were announced in Britain and South Africa, leading to the swift return of international travel restrictions and other measures just as the world enters a major holiday season.
“It’s a separate lineage from the UK and South Africa. Give us some time … it’s still very early,” Nkengasong stated.

The alert about the apparent new variant was based on two or three genetic sequences, he said, but that and South Africa’s alert late last week were enough to prompt an emergency meeting of the Africa CDC this week.
The variant was found in two patient samples collected on August 3 and on October 9 in Osun State.

Unlike the variant seen in the UK, “we haven’t observed such rapid rise of the lineage in Nigeria and do not have evidence to indicate that the P681H variant is contributing to increased transmission of the virus in Nigeria. However, the relative difference in scale of genomic surveillance in Nigeria vs the U.K. may imply a reduced power to detect such changes,” a document on the new variant said.

The new variant in South Africa is now the predominant one there, Nkengasong said, as confirmed infections in the country approach one million.
While the variant transmits quickly and viral loads are higher, it is not yet clear whether it leads to a more severe disease, he said.
“We believe this mutation will not have an effect” on the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines to the continent, he said of the South Africa variant.

FG Begin Talks with Scientists on New Variant

The National Coordinator of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Covid-19, Dr. Sani Aliyu, has said that the PTF is in touch with Professor Christian Happi, who alongside Ify Aniebo, led a group to carry out a study, where they found that the United Kingdom’s ‘lineage B.1.1.7,’ a mutant variant of the COVID-19 virus, has been existing in Nigeria for months.

Happi of the Redeemers University reported the collection of samples from Osun State in August and October, both of which showed the presence of the new variant.
“We have reached out to Professor Happi to seek additional clarifications with regards to this and we are also talking to NCDC. What is really vital at this stage is to immediately do sequencing,” Aliyu said when he appeared on ARISE News Channel, the broadcast arm of THISDAY Newspapers.

“I know the sequencing that Professor Happi’s group have done in the past involved about 250 samples, so that’s really low. What we need to do and most of the things he did I think were in August or September, so we are much much further down the line now and what we need to do is to make sure that we sequence as many outlets as we have now,” he said.

According to him, the new COVID-19 variant found in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Australia is more transmissible based on grove studies, but there was, however, no human epidemiological link that suggests that the strain is more deadly.
“Just to allay public anxiety, the strain that has been described in the UK and also now in South Africa and in Australia and in some other countries, what has been shown is that it is more transmissible based on grove studies.

“But there’s no human epidemiological link that suggests that it is more deadly at the moment and certainly, with coronaviruses, they always tend to change, that’s why if you catch a common cold for instance and you get better, the next day if you see someone with a cold, you are just as likely to go down with it.

“They are strains that continue to replicate very quickly, so it’s no surprise that we have a new strain that is being described at the moment. But it’s still early days yet in terms of the science and even within the UK, there’s still a lot of debate as to how different it is from previous strains.

“We are not trying to say we should ignore the problem, we had a very long discussion yesterday at the PTF, a debate that lasted well over an hour with different aspects being looked at and we’ll continue to monitor this very closely. We’ve already asked Professor Happy to provide us with additional clarification because they’ve been working for the NCDC as well,” Aliyu added.

Imposes Fresh Requirements on UK, S’Africa Travellers

The federal government has imposed fresh requirements on travellers from the UK and South Africa, where variants of COVID-19 have been discovered.
It gave approval to port health authorities to pay special attention to flights originating from the two countries to ensure that that the passengers from there abide by the protocol on the post-arrival PCR Test.

The National Coordinator, Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, Dr Sani Aliyu, at a PTF briefing in Abuja yesterday, said President Muhammadu Buhari gave the approval when the members of the task force presented their end of the year report to him on Tuesday.
He stated that effective from the midnight of December 28, it is the responsibility of passengers from the two countries to ensure they familiarise themselves with these rule while airlines will be notified accordingly.

The additional travel requirements followed report that many travellers were not abiding by the mandatory international protocol that expect travellers to do test seven days after arrival.
Besides, focus have been on the UK and South Africa because of the discovery of a new variant of COVID-19, which is considered to be more virulent, from the two countries.

In addition, Aliyu said passengers that failed to perform their mandatory day seven test by day 10, will automatically be placed on the suspension list and their travel passport suspended for a minimum period of six months.

“If you carry a foreign passport with a visa, we will revoke your visa and because it is easier to track smaller group of persons than large numbers of persons, we are able to enforce this specifically for passengers coming from these routes (South Africa and UK) until further notice,” he said.

He added that over this weekend, the PTF will publish the first list of 100 Nigerian passport numbers that will be suspended for six months.
He explained that those affected have been contacted, having also confirmed that they have not had a COVID-19 PCR test.
“We will not be publishing names, but we will publish the passport numbers and we are asking from now on the people that are travelling to obey our protocol as there will be a repercussion if you don’t in terms of penalty.

“In addition to this, we will also be instituting the same penalty for people presenting fake COVID-19 PCR results at our airports when exiting or they are found to have presented fake COVID- 19 PCR result on arrival. For those that are exiting, we have codes that we have developed and we will be asking airlines to start using, which will entail entering a code for every result onto a website which will tell whether the result is fake,” Aliyu said.

Also at the briefing, Chairman of the PTF, Mr. Boss Mustapha, said the federal government would continue to evaluate the actions taken by various countries on South Africa and the UK, noting that some of the countries that initially banned flights from these high burden nations have now adopted the requirements already in place in Nigeria.

He added that the government has also weighed the security, economic and social implications of a full ban on UK and South African flights, especially the situation in neighboring countries and the ECOWAS region.
According to him, the PTF will increase measures pertaining to those high burden countries to scale down the possibilities of importation.

FG to Commence COVID-19 Vaccinations Q1 2021

The Director General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), Dr. Chikwe Ihekweazu, has said that the federal government will commence the first tranche of COVID-19 vaccinations in the first quarter of 2021.
He added that the government plans to vaccinate 20 per cent of Nigeria’s projected population of 206 million people.

Ihekweazu said the government is currently working on plans surrounding distribution, logistics and implementation across Nigeria.
He spoke yesterday on The ‘Morning Show’ on ARISE NEWS Channel, the sister broadcast arm of THISDAY Newspapers.
Ihekweazu stated that data on the prevalence of COVID-19 and its impact on Nigeria would be released in January.

He said: “The vaccine effort is being led by a sister agency, the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHDA), under the leadership of the Minister of Health, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, and of course the presidential task force giving us a broad leadership on this. To be honest, nothing is keeping us this year; our colleagues are working extremely hard on this.

“There are certain guarantee of pathways of delivery of the first set of vaccine, somewhere within the first quarter of next year, we would have guaranteed vaccines to cover 20 per cent of the Nigerian population, which is about 40 million people. That is lot of vaccine to start with. It would not cover the whole country, but remember we still have to distribute and vaccinate 40 million people. Even if we have the vaccine now, there is a huge logistical effort that has to happen.”

On which of the vaccines the government is looking to acquire, he said the government was yet to decide, adding that the decision would be announced as soon as it is confirmed.
He said: “We are not going to be able to use the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to scale. I am not saying that we would not procure any, our leaders are making those difficult decisions; but within the circumstances of Nigeria and the working assumptions not to use them to scale, there are other vaccines in the pipeline, but our leaders would make those decisions within the next few weeks to define what exactly and which vaccines we would be using and we are able to distribute effectively in Nigeria.”

Speaking on the possibility of a new strain of the virus in Nigeria, Ihekweazu said it has not been confirmed if the strain discovered in the United Kingdom and other countries is in Nigeria.
He, however, stated that the virus is constantly mutating to create new strains. “Viruses change all the time, that viruses are mutating is what they do by their nature, some may change faster and some may change slower than others but this is new virus and we are still learning a lot about it.

“The critical question is if those changes lead to a difference in either transability, mortality and those it has an impact on outcome. The early data suggest that the new variant in the United Kingdom does have an impact on transmission and intensive studies are going on now to understand how much this is playing a role,” he said.

He added: “But there are other causes of intensive transmission. In the US for example, they are also looking at their data to study if it is from the new variant, which is the same in South Africa. While in Nigeria, to understand if we have a new variant or not, we have to do something called sequencing, which is breaking down the virus and studying each DNA and to understand where the mutations are and the impact it has. We did some earlier but it is a very complex process and there are only three public laboratories where it can be done in the country. We did some earlier and we are now doing a bit more to see if we can find that strain in the country.

“But having said that, a mutant strain alone is not enough to explain what is going on in Nigeria. A more likely explanation is that we simply dropped the ball, we thought this outbreak was over, we tried to return to life as normal, which I completely understand given the difficulty we had but we are paying the price for not doing the things we needed to do as a society to prevent an escalation. It is never too late to compose ourselves again and that see what the state governors are doing to reinvigorate our activities and enhance enforcement and compliance and give up some of those things we hold very dear at this time of the year in order to have a year to look forward to in 2021.”

He explained that it had been discovered that the strains found in Nigeria in August and October were similar but not the same with that found in the UK. “So, they were actively independent evolved strains, which is what happened also in South Africa. It was found in two patients and the strain in two people is not enough to reach any conclusions. So, what we need to know in a new strain is how that new strain has displaced the other strains in circulation and therefore dominate the strains of the virus in circulation, therefore causing a disease that is slightly different either more severe or less severe than others.

“We don’t have the capacity like the UK to do this sequencing, so what we are doing is collecting a random collection of samples we already have and we are working with our colleagues in Redeemer’s University to identify whether this strain is mutating or not and what impact it has,” he stated.

On the prevalence of the pandemic test, he said: “We have started the analysis of that study. We have tested all the samples, so within the first couple of weeks in January, we would announce the early results. It would provide us a lot more insights extensively on the transmission in Nigeria. So, give us few more weeks to tidy up the data so we can have confidence in the data.”
Ihekweazu called on Nigerians to take the pandemic seriously, stressing that there are more infections now than at the first peak.

“We are well into what people refer to as the second wave. The fact is that we are reporting more cases on single days than we did at the initial peak. Yesterday night, we had 1,133, which is our second daily highest number of cases per day. So, the reality is that this virus is very well with us and intensive community transmission is happening. We are seeing increases in in about 23 states across the country. So, this is widespread and it is more intensive in Lagos Kaduna and the Federal Capital Territory,” he added.