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January 16, 2021

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Nigerian government ‘yet to decide’ on flights restrictions amidst threat of COVID-19 variant

6 min read

Amidst high concerns of the rapid spread of the new variant of coronavirus found in the United Kingdom (UK), the Nigerian government is yet to take a decision on international flight restrictions.

Scientists at the Africa Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID), in the late hours of Monday, said the new variant has already been found in Nigeria.

Following warnings from the UK government that the new variant of the virus seemed to be spreading much faster than previous kinds, more than 40 countries have banned travel arrivals from the UK.

India, Pakistan, Russia, Jordan and Hong Kong joined European countries in suspending travel from Britain.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman also closed their borders completely.

France also shut its border with the UK for 48 hours, meaning no lorries or ferries can leave from the port of Dover.

But Africa’s most populous country seems to be taking too long to arrive at a decision, a proof that the country failed to learn from its previous mistake.

“A lot of discussions is still going on around the calls for the restriction of international travels due to the discovery of new strains of the virus in certain countries,” Boss Mustapha, the Chairperson of the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on COVID-19, said at a briefing on Monday.

“The PTF, Aviation and health authorities including the WHO are assessing the situation closely and would take a position as soon as cogent scientific basis are established.”

Slow pace

Nigeria was one of the last countries to shut its airport activities during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision some said should have been taken earlier to curtail the spread of the virus.

The index case of COVID-19 in Nigeria was found in an Italian who arrived the country from Milan through the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, in February.

READ ALSO: New COVID-19 variant in UK found in Nigeria – Experts

“The reason Nigeria took a harder than necessary hit during the first wave of the #COVID19 virus is that the Federal Government failed to heed the warnings of well-meaning Nigerians, like myself and others, to shut down our borders once the virus became a pandemic,” Atiku Abubakar, a former presidential candidate of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) wrote on Twitter.

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He said the new strain could further add to the country’s health emergency if flights to and from the UK are not halted.

“We must learn from history or we stand the risk of repeating it,” Mr Abubakar said.

Second wave

Following an unprecedented spike in new COVID-19 cases across the country, the Nigerian government has announced that the country has entered the second wave of the pandemic.

This may be partly attributed to the constant breaching of government-enforced COVID-19 safety and testing protocols by passengers travelling in and out of Nigeria, as recently reported by PREMIUM TIMES.

As part of the response to the second wave, the federal authorities ordered the immediate closure of bars, nightclubs, and restaurants across the country. The number of guests at weddings, conferences, among others has also been limited to 50 persons, according to Mr Mustapha.

Even before the federal government’s advisory, many states like Lagos and Kaduna already introduced new rounds of restrictions to limit the spread of the virus.

Nigeria last week recorded more new COVID-19 cases than at any other week since the first case of the virus was registered in the country in February.

Also, about five days ago, the country registered its latest highest daily figure of 1,145, a record likely to be broken soon going by the way the virus is spreading.

Until the resurgence of the infections in December, Nigeria never had a higher number of daily infections than the 745 reported on June 19.

Although, Christian Happi, Professor of molecular biology and genomics and the Director of ACEGID, said he cannot credit the new variant for this rise as it was last seen in October and at the time, there was no surge in the number of cases.

“We, however, haven’t observed such rapid rise of the lineage in Nigeria and do not have sufficient evidence to indicate that the B.1.1.7 lineage is contributing to increased transmission of the virus in Nigeria,” he said.

New variant

The BBC reported that the new variant of coronavirus was first detected in September. In November, around a quarter of cases in London were the new variant. This reached nearly two-thirds of cases in mid-December.

The latest figures released on Monday revealed that another 33,364 people in the UK have tested positive for the virus.

There were also a further 215 deaths within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the nation’s total to 67,616.

The BBC reported that top health officials said there was no evidence the new variant was more deadly or would react differently to vaccines, but it was proving to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the new strain “was out of control. We have got to get it under control”, admitting that this was “an incredibly difficult end to frankly an awful year”, the report said.

The WHO has said it is in close contact with the UK adding that the same strain has been identified in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia.

Vaccines

There are rising concerns about whether the mutation in the virus will affect the vaccines.

Scientists, however, said the new variant will have no effect on the vaccine although a close watch has to be kept.

“It stands to reason that this mutation isn’t a threat, but you never know. We still have to be diligent and continue to look,” said Nelson Michael, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research.

A presentation by David Robertson, from the University of Glasgow, on Friday, concluded that “The virus will probably be able to generate vaccine escape mutants.”

Vaccine escape happens when the virus changes so it dodges the full effect of the vaccine and continues to infect people.

Additionally, “the amount of evidence in the public domain is woefully inadequate to draw strong or firm opinions on whether the virus has truly increased transmission,” said Jonathan Ball, a virologist at the University of Nottingham.

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