A new variant of the Sars-CoV-2 virus has been identified in the UK by travellers from Antigua. This variant, which is not yet considered a variant of concern, contains mutations associated with higher transmission and lower vaccine efficacy.
Speaking at the Ministry of Health’s virtual media conference, University of the West Indies (UWI) professor of molecular genetics and virology Christine Carrington said that while this new variant shared some of the same mutations as those found in variants of concern, it was too soon for alarm.
“We have to remember that the mere presence of these mutations was not enough to conclude that the variant shares the same properties because those mutations occur in a context. So, the context in which they occur—the rest of the virus’ genome—is important,” she said. “And it is also missing other mutations that are thought to be significant.”
So far, UWI has tested only four samples from Antigua and those two yielded results. Neither showed variants of concern.
“I assume the next step would be to look at more samples from Antigua to see if that variant is really spreading in Antigua, or if they got it somewhere else,” Dr Carrington predicted. “It’s important to note that these are variants under investigation … We don’t know yet how worried we should be.”
Of the many variants detected globally, three have been said to be variants of concern: the B117, first detected in the UK, the B1351 variant found in South Africa and the P1 variant first detected in Brazil.
Dr Carrington said that the so-called UK variant has been found to be at least 50% more transmissible and some evidence shows that it causes more severe disease.
She also said that the South African and Brazilian variants were of concern because they could reinfect people who had previously been infected with a different variant. Vaccines also appear to have reduced efficacy against them.
She added that some data suggests that the P1 variant (from Brazil) could also more transmissible, but that still had to be confirmed.
Dr Carrington explained that it was normal for viruses to mutate and most did not change the virus’ ability to cause disease or infection.
“As mutations accumulate over time, we will start seeing variants with new properties, some of which may be of concern,” she said.
Through a partnership with the Caribbean Public Health Agency (Carpha), UWI has tested 300 samples from the Caribbean region and have found 48 lineages. The UK variant was found in seven countries and had been associated with rapid community spread in some territories.
In Trinidad and Tobago, one case of the UK variant was found in a returning national in January. The person was quarantined on entry. The P1 variant from Brazil was also detected at a seaport, but the person did not come ashore.
Dr Carrington said there was only one way to stop mutations.
“Since mutations only occur when viruses replicate within the cells of an infected person, the way to prevent mutations and the way to prevent variants arising is to prevent new infections,” she said.
She added: “The longer this pandemic goes on, the more chances there are for Sars-Cov-2 to mutate. So, we just have to double-down on all the things we’ve been doing for the past year because we really want to keep these variants at bay.”
Vaccines, she said, were still a good tool in the fight against the virus though variants did affect how well they worked.
“Although against these variants the vaccines are not as good at preventing disease altogether, the evidence suggests that they will still work well against these variants to prevent severe disease, which is the most important thing. So, they will prevent severe disease, hospitalisations and death.”
She explained: “The immune response that they illicit is a broad immune response involving a range of antibodies and a range of cells. So the changes and mutations in the virus should not make vaccines completely ineffective.”
Also speaking to the media, chief medical officer (CMO) Dr Roshan Parasram said there were clusters of infections in County Caroni that had caused an upsurge in new case numbers. He said the clusters could possibly involve two families.
“We really saw that from one individual being infected, that one person was able to spread it to quite a large number of people in a short space of time, hence our reason for getting our rolling average now up to seven within the space of a few days,” he said.
He said that Trinidad and Tobago was still categorised as having low community spread. Community spread describes when the source of a transmission cannot be identified.
The CMO urged the country to remain vigilant.
“Covid-19 is here, it is in the country, it hasn’t gone away. … I thnk this small upsurge in cases shows that although the numbers are low, you can still have clusters of cases and larger outbreaks occurring at the local level very quickly and taking those numbers very high in a short space of time,” he said.
The health ministry reported five new positive cases today. In the last five days, T&T recorded double-digit new infections on three days. The total number of cases reported since March 2020 is 7,788.
There are 106 active cases of Covid-19 in the country. Six people are in hospital and one is in a step-down facility. There are 289 people in state quarantine facilities and 94 in home isolation.
The death toll is 140.