January 20, 2021

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Nigerian virologist cautions against politics in COVID-19 policy making

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One of Nigeria’s leading virologists, Oyewale Tomori, weighed in Sunday in Lagos to the simmering war of words between British and South African public health officials on the status of the new COVID-19 variants in their respective countries.

Matt Hancock, UK’s health secretary, triggered a vitriolic exchange at his press briefing on Wednesday, December 23 when he characterized the South African COVID-19 variant as “highly concerning” and as “more transmissible.”

“This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant discovered in the UK,” Hancock told the Downing Press.

His claims followed South Africa’s announcement of a new COVID-19 variant and the identification on Tuesday of two people who contracted the virus after being in contact with separate travellers from South Africa through surveillance by Public Health England. One case is in London, the other in the north-west.

This attracted a swift counter from South Africa’s Minister for Health, Zweli Mkhize. who said in a response on Thursday that, “there is no evidence that the 501.V2 is more transmissible than the United Kingdom variant- as suggested by British Health Secretary.”

He added that the state’s genomics team has assured them that “there is also no evidence that the 501.V2 causes more severe disease or increased mortality than the UK variant or any variant that has been sequenced around the world.”

The statement also noted that further investigations are ongoing to provide more clarity.

The UK had said its new variant was identified late September in Kent while researchers at South Africa’s Covid-19 surveillance command centre (KRISP) affirmed that that the new variant emanating from Nelson Mandela Bay South Africa was only identified in mid-October.

Mr. Tomori, a professor of virology, put the face-off between the two officials as mere political storm in a teacup based on incomplete data.

“I expect that politically, they will make those statements as each of them is trying to defend their country but not one of them has facts to base their points on.”

“Each of us, we are all speaking based on incomplete data whether Nigeria, South Africa or UK.”

Scientists in the UK and South Africa also agree with Mr Tomori’s view that there is still little or no evidence that shows the South African variant is more transmissible than UK’s like Mr Hancock suggests.

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In comments to the Guardian, Richard Lessells, an infectious disease specialist who has studied the South African variant at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, said there was too little evidence so far to know whether it is more transmissible than the UK one.

“We do have good evidence that it is more transmissible than the previously circulating variants, but it’s difficult for us to quantify precisely.”

Stuart Neil, a professor of virology at King’s College London, reinforced this position saying, “while little was known about the new variants, it was important to take precautions,” a point elaborated by Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser on Covid-19 to PHE and NHS test and trace.

Mr. Neil said: “We are investigating this new variant of SARS-CoV-2 which originated in South Africa. Viruses often evolve and this is not unusual. We are carrying out work as a priority to understand the potential risk this variant may cause. It is important to say that there is currently no evidence that this variant causes more severe illness, or that the regulated vaccine would not protect against it.”

The UK government on Wednesday announced that visitors from South Africa, or those who have transited through the country in the last 10 days, would be barred from entering England from 9 a.m. on Christmas Eve and direct flights would be banned.

But Mr Tomori, reflecting on the policy, said there is no study to compare the transmissibility of the two variants and so there is no evidence to back these claims, adding that though a variant spreads quickly in one location, without evidence, it cannot be said it will do the same in another.

“This is a diversion from the real problem, we are wasting our time on this kind of debate while the virus is spreading as it likes,” he said.

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