New virus variant emerges in Nigeria: Africa CDC

NAIROBI, KENYA (AP) — Another new variant of the coronavirus appears to have emerged in Nigeria, Africa’s top public health official said, but he added that further investigation was needed.

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 during a major holiday season.

“It’s a separate lineage from the United Kingdom (UK) and South Africa,” Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Head John Nkengasong told reporters. He said the Nigeria CDC and the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases would analyse more samples.

“Give us some time … it’s still very early,” he said.

The identification of the apparent new variant was based on two or three genetic sequences, Nkengasong said, but that and South Africa’s alert last week were enough to prompt an emergency meeting of the Africa CDC this week.

The variant in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, was found in two patient samples collected on August 3 and on October 9 in Osun state, according to a working research paper seen by The Associated Press (AP).

People buy vegetables at a market in Lagos, Nigeria. PHOTO: AP

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 UK may imply a reduced power to detect such changes,” the paper said.

The news comes as infections surge again in parts of the African continent.

The new virus 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.

South Africa’s health minister has announced an “alarming rate of spread” in the country, with more than 14,000 new confirmed cases and more than 400 deaths reported on Wednesday. It was the largest single-day increase in cases.

The country has more than 950,000 infections and COVID-19 is “unrelenting”, Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize said.

“There’s no sign at the moment that we’re reaching a peak. There’s still rapid exponential growth,” infectious disease specialist Richard Lessells told the AP. He said South Africa needs to double down on virus control efforts “because already many hospitals in many parts of the country are extremely stretched”.

But there is little sign of the tough restrictions that many African countries imposed early in the pandemic, which were seen as causing severe pain to economies and millions of informal workers.

The African continent now has more than 2.5 million confirmed cases, or 3.3 per cent of global cases. Infections across the continent have risen 10.9 per cent over the past four weeks, the Africa CDC Director said, including a 52 per cent increase in Nigeria and 40 per cent increase in South Africa.