Congratulations!! to Professor Awandare and his Team from the West African Center for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens ( WACCBIP ) for once again taking the lead in the identification of this new SARS-CoV-2 variant in Ghana.
I will attempt to explain this for many who may not understand what this is about.
The SARS-CoV-2 is a like long strand arranged in the form of pavement blocks which could vary from 27,000 – 30,000. Each block has a number and the changes that occur are associated with the position of the block. Three of these blocks could lead to the formation of various structural and non-structural components of the virus. Some of these structures could be the virus envelope (cover), spike (crown on the virus head), membrane (body protector) and nucleocapsid (gene protector).
From time to time some of these blocks could be substituted, replaced, deleted or shifted when viruses interact with other viruses through infection. This change is termed as “mutation”. Some of the changes may not affect the function of the virus whereas other will affect the way the virus behaves.
In late January, the first change termed as (D614G) was recorded in the crown of the virus and this replaced the old forms of the viruses upto somewhere June. On 14 December, 2020 the UK identified another form of the virus which this time has 23 of its pavement blocks substituted for new ones. Eight of these changes occurred in the crown of the virus. The UK calls this “B.1.1.7” and WHO has named it “VOC 202012/01”. On 18 December, South Africa also announced a new virus which has changes in pavement block quite similar to the U.K one. They named this as “501Y.V2.
Ghana has now identified the UK strain (B.1.1.7) and the South African strain (501Y.V2) among few travelers who entered the country.
Implications to Public Health
Whenever these changes occur in the virus it does the following:
The virus could gain more strength and efficiency in infecting people
The signs and symptoms that occur in people could also change
The vaccine developed to target the virus may not work
The drugs in use may perform sub-optimally or not work
The severity of disease and death from infection may increase
Age populations infected may also vary
Research conducted so far seem to show this new strain only affects the transmissibility of the virus. In other words, this virus can infect more people at a given time. The signs and symptoms, drugs and other behaviors is the same as the new one. What this means is that the virus may infect many more people than what we used to know. Infecting more people would mean many more may get severe disease if not managed on time. It is highly possible this new strain has already invaded the communities and may be responsible for the current surges we are recording although we are yet to get evidence to this. A lot is still not known and many scientists across the world are actively conducting epidemiological surveillance to understand this strain more and its implication on treatment, laboratory detection, clinical diagnosis and other public health measures. We are not sure the other behaviours it will exhibit in African populations.
What should we do?
Fortunately, the public health measures against the old one still works for the new one. Wearing face mask, applying 70% alcohol sanitizers, washing your hands etc. are very effective and can cut down the virus growth by over 70%. We need to take these precautions more seriously now than ever and bring this under control.
Dr. Michael Owusu
Department of Medical Diagnostics, KNUST
Director, Centre for Health System Strengthening, Kumasi