NAIROBI – Kenyan scientists have raised an alarm on a coronavirus variant they say differs from the one spreading in South Africa and Britain.
About 10 investigators from the Kenya Medical Research Institute, or KEMRI, discovered the mutation of the virus responsible for the COVID-19 disease.
Charles Agoti, a principal investigator and researcher, says that the variant unique to Kenya was detected in a batch of samples taken from Taita Taveta county, located in the southeastern part of the country.
“Our interpretation is that because in this one place in Kenya we were seeing, it represents the majority of the sequenced samples; it does imply that actually, it could if it has intrinsic properties, be more transmissible,” Agoti said. “It could result in an increase in the number of cases locally.”
Between June and October of last year, KEMRI sequenced around 205 genomes in the coastal region and further identified around 16 circulating mutations all of which have so far have proven harmless.
Agoti says that the variant will not at this stage have an impact on the effectiveness of new coronavirus vaccines.
“I think it’s unlikely this is just only one change in the about 1,200 amino acids-long spike protein, so still there are very many other bits of the virus which the current vaccines target and can be able to neutralize the virus effectively,” Agoti said.
According to the World Health Organization, these variants of concern which are on the rise in 47 countries in Africa may impact a person’s immune response and need to be investigated further.
Rudi Eggers is the WHO representative in Kenya. Eggers says that the mutations are a cause of concern worldwide.
“So, the vaccines as far as we can say will still be effective as far as we can notice at the moment, but this is very early days, and we will have to do more research on that, but early indications deem that the vaccines that are generally available against this virus are still holding and still are protective; but it’s possible that actually there will be a decrease in the efficacy of the vaccine,” Eggers said.
Brazil, the World Health Organization noted, is one of the countries where a new variant has also been found.
Experts at Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center say they fear that the world may need to roll out second generation vaccines even before first generation vaccines have been fully introduced. Andrea Taylor is the assistant director at the North Carolina-based center.
“So, the current slate of COVID vaccines work by targeting the spike protein, however the Brazil strain for example, changes the shape of that protein and our current vaccines may not be as effective against this or future mutations,” Taylor said. “Unless we can control spread everywhere, we could find ourselves in the position of needing second generation vaccines before we have even rolled out the first generation.”
According to the latest data from the John Hopkins University, Africa has around three million reported coronavirus cases, with a fatality count of 76,000.
Johns Hopkins also says more 99,000 Kenyans are infected and 1,700 people have died.