The Union government on Thursday, November 26, told all the states and Union Territories to be cautious about international passengers travelling from or through Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong in view of a new COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa. In a letter to the states, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said, "It has now been reported by NCDC that multiple cases of a COVID-19 variant β 8.1.1529 β have been reported in Botswana (three), South Africa (six) and Hong Kong (one). This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus has serious public health implications for the country in view of the recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel.β
"It is imperative that all international travellers travelling from and transiting through these countries and also including all other 'at risk' countries are subjected to rigorous screening and testing. The contacts of these international travellers must also be closely tracked and tested," the official added.
The letter has directed the states to ensure that samples of travellers turning positive are sent to the designated IGSLs promptly as per the INSACOG guidance document issued by the Health Ministry. The ministry has also told the states and UTs to adhere to the overarching 'Test-Track-Treat-Vaccinate' principle to ensure stringent implementation of containment measures as per ministry guidelines.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation is monitoring the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 first detected in South Africa and will hold a "special meeting" on Friday, November 26, to discuss if the heavily mutated strain will become a variant of interest or a variant of concern, a top official said.
The latest variant is the most heavily mutated version discovered so far. First identified in South Africa at the start of this week, the strain has already spread to neighbouring countries, including Botswana, where it has been reportedly detected in fully vaccinated people.
The new variant has been red-flagged by scientists over an alarmingly high number of spike mutations that might make the virus more resistant to vaccines, increase its transmissibility and lead to more severe COVID-19 symptoms.
"There are fewer than 100 whole genome sequences that are available. We don't know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, that can have an impact on how the virus behaves,β Infectious Disease Epidemiologist and COVID-19 Technical Lead at the WHO Maria Van Kerkhove said during a virtual Q&A session on Thursday.
She said right now the researchers were getting together to understand where these mutations and spike protein are and what that potentially may mean for COVID19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
Kerkhove said WHO colleagues in South Africa are planning to undertake a neutralisation study that will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines.
Emphasising that a great deal of work is underway on the new variant, Kerkhove said the WHO Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution is discussing this with colleagues in South Africa. We're also meeting again tomorrow. βWe're calling a special meeting to discuss this, not to cause alarm, but just because we have this system in place, we could bring these scientists together and discuss what does it mean and also can set the timeline for how long it will take for us to get those answers,β she said.
The WHO has said that only 27% of health workers in Africa have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, leaving the bulk of the workforce on the frontlines against the pandemic unprotected. After almost four months of a sustained decline, COVID-19 cases in the general population in Africa have plateaued. For the first time since the third wave peak in August, cases in Southern Africa have increased, jumping 48% in the week ending on November 21 compared with the previous week.
To date, more than 227 million vaccine doses have been administered in Africa. In 39 countries which provided data, 3.9 million doses have been given to health workers. With a new surge in cases looming over Africa following the end-of-year festive season, countries must urgently speed up the rollout of vaccines to health care workers, said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.