Uganda on high alert as new Covid-19 strain hits Kenya

Wednesday January 27 2021

Passengers wearing full personal protective gears get off a plane at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya, on January 19, 2021.PHOTO/AFP.

By Tonny Abet

As emerging evidence points that the new Coronavirus variants are more transmissible and deadly, Kenyan scientists have said they detected a variant entirely different from that in South Africa and Britain.

The Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) was last week quoted by Daily Nation to have said the new variant was detected in samples collected from Taita Taveta County, in the south-eastern part of the country.

“The virus carrying this change seems to have caused quite a significant number of infections in Taita. We have not seen this variant anywhere else in the world,” Dr Charles Agoti, a Kemri researcher and principle member of a team of investigators, said.

Dr Agoti said the strain has unique amino acid change, one designated as D80A (change of the amino acid at position 80 of the spike protein from aspartic acid to alanine), in 14 samples collected in Taita Taveta.

South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Nigeria are some of the countries in the continent that have also reported cases of new variants, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). International travels can fuel the spread of these variants. 

Uganda findings
Prof Pontiano Kaleebu, the director of Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), told Daily Monitor on Sunday: “We see one or two mutations in here and there [in our laboratory investigations], but they are not unique. These are usual mutations one expects to occur as the virus replicate. But if you see 10 mutations coming up, such as those in the spike that affect the virus binding on the body cell [then it can be categorised as a new strain].” 
Prof Kaleebu said they are intensifying the investigations to detect the possibility of the new strain in the country.


“We have so far tested samples up to the end of October [to determine whether there are new strains]. We are now working on later samples for November 2020 to January this year. We could detect the new strain or we may not,” he added.
However, Dr Henry Kajumbula, the head of infection prevention and control in the team of scientists, said the country is not doing enough sequencing of the virus genome to determine whether there could be some new strains.

Earlier, Dr Bruce Kirenga, the director of Makerere University Lung Institute, who is also treating Covid-19 patients at Mulago Hospital, said the new strain of the Coronavirus could be the reason they are receiving patients with strange signs and symptoms.
He said more patients were presenting mental disorders that affected the treatment and increased hardship in managing them. 

Causes of mutation 
“A virus often mutate for many reasons. It can happen because of the pressure from the immune system [that is fighting to eliminate the virus from the body] or as an adaptation mechanism to survive,” Prof Kaleebu explained. 
More transmissible, deadly 
“Although some mutations can affect the survival of a virus, the ones we are seeing in the coronavirus such as those in South Africa, are of more advantage to the virus because they are more transmissible,” he said.

Last week, the UK Prime Minister said evidence suggests the variant of coronavirus that emerged in the UK may be more deadly. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.

“In addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant - the variant that was first identified in London and the south-east - may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” he was quoted by the BBC to have said.

Effect on testing, vaccine effectiveness
Last week, the WHO said the mutations of the virus “may increase the risk of delayed diagnosis (due to inconclusive or invalid results), and misdiagnosis new strains can affect the quality of test results.”

Its notice to laboratory professionals on January 18, the United Nations agency asked the specialists who are testing for the coronavirus to pay keen attention to mutations of the coronavirus and their impact on diagnosis. 
“IVD users should routinely review test results to detect unexpected increases or decreases in test results, including positivity rate, target detection rate, invalid or unreturnable result rate, etc. These variations may be early indicators of impact on the safety, quality or performance of the IVD products,” the WHO said.
IVDs are reagent, instruments and systems used in the diagnosis of diseases such as Covid-19. Uganda uses Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test to diagnose Covid-19.

Another information from WHO, the variants “may reduce vaccine efficacy directed against the spike protein but will not obliterate their effects.”
Spike protein is one of the structures on the surface of the coronavirus that it uses to penetrate the body cells to cause infection.