Why you should worry about UK's new Covid strain - Beaking Kenya News

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Wednesday, 23 December 2020

Why you should worry about UK's new Covid strain


Kenyan scientists have increased surveillance of the coronavirus after new mutations were reported in South Africa and in Britain.

So far, no mutated strain has been reported in Kenya but it could happen, experts said on Tuesday.

Initial reports indicate the new strain spreads faster but does not appear to be deadlier than the original virus. 

It was not immediately clear, however, whether the rapid spread was due to mutation or people's laxity in protecting themselves.

Prof Omu Anzala, a virologist on the national Covid-19 task force, told the Star Kenyan scientists are not surprised by the new variants.

“The current mutation in the UK is not unusual because viruses are continually changing. We’re monitoring people arriving from outside and sequencing our own strain to see if any mutation  is more or less dangerous,” he said.

“The fear is justified," Prof Anzala said when asked whether Kenyans should be worried.

"The reason we’ve not found a vaccine for HIV is that it mutates a lot and this affects targets for vaccines. Thank God it hasn’t affected diagnosis and the current treatments.”

He advised Kenyans to strictly observe Health ministry protocols, even if the official daily Covid-19 cases appear to be declining.

The protocols include wearing masks, washing and sanitising hands, keeping social distance and avoiding crowds.

“We should also totally isolate those infected because you might not know which strain they carry," he said.

In June, the Kenya Medical Research Institute released results of genome sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 revealing that nine lineages were circulating in Kenya, mostly from Europe.

There was no significant mutation to account for a new strain in Kenya.

Prof Anzala, who is also the director of the Kenya Aids Vaccine Initiative, said a mutation could also take place in Kenya.

A mutation is a change in the virus’s genome, the set of genetic instructions that contain all the information the virus needs to function.

He explained mutations often happen as a pathogen faces pressure to overcome growing immunity in human populations and vaccinations.

Although there’s rare chance a virus could mutate to become more aggressive, RNA viruses like the SARS-CoV-2 are more likely to mutate into weaker versions.

Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s health emergencies programme, on Monday said it was unclear if the increase in Covid-19 spread in the UK is due to the mutation or people’s laxity in following health protocols.

“It remains to be seen how much of that is due to the specific genetic change in the new variant. I suspect some,” he said.

In South Africa, scientists said human behaviour was driving the epidemic, not necessarily new mutations whose effect on transmissibility had yet to be quantified.

Prof Anzala said surveillance of viruses is not new in Kenya.

“We do constant surveillance for polio and measles,” he said.

Scientists also said the mutation will not make the current Covid-19 vaccines ineffective.

They said because the coronavirus mutates so sluggishly, it would take years for the virus to evolve enough to make vaccines useless.

Fortunately, the mRNA technology used in the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines is easier to adjust and update than conventional vaccines.

Also, the body’s entire immune system does not forget a virus, despite the many variations it may adopt.

This is because the older strain of a virus preserves enough features that provide immunity against a whole group of variants.

“When a mutation happens it does not mean the old strains go away, they are still there,” Prof Anzala said.

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