Africa CDC urges African countries to reinforce COVID-19 response efforts amid report of new variant

ADDIS ABABA (EI) — The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) on Wednesday urged African countries to reinforce COVID-19 testing, contact tracing and early treatment of cases as the continent seeks to gain more insight about the new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, which was reported in South Africa and the United Kingdom over the past week.

“Coincidentally, the news of the variant has come when the continent is also experiencing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, Africa CDC advises that member states reinforce their efforts to increase testing, contact tracing and early treatment of cases while we seek to gain more insight about the impact this new variant could have on testing accuracy, clinical outcomes and vaccine efficacy,” the Africa CDC said in a situation report issued on Wednesday.

The Africa CDC, however, stressed that “there is no immediate need to restrict trade and travel across the continent, because travelers across the continent now require a negative virologic test (PCR or Antigen test) before they can travel.”

The Africa CDC also said it’s closely following up with authorities in South Africa, where the variant was first identified in Nelson Mandela Bay and has rapidly spread through the Eastern and Western Capes, as well as KwaZulu-Natal.

The Africa CDC, which urged member states to increase general awareness of the new variant and take timely measures to monitor, prevent and control its spread, also stressed that public health laboratories and researchers should strengthen collaboration and coordination with national and regional pathogen genomics laboratories in order to conduct genomic surveillance and sequencing of the virus in a timely manner.

African Union (AU) member states have been also advised to notify Africa CDC immediately if they identify any new SARS-CoV-2 variant. Member states also urged to enhance community-based surveillance for early identification of hotspots and continue to encourage community members to adhere to public health and social measures for their protection.

It also called on African countries and Africa CDC Regional Collaborating Centers to enhance surveillance and cross-border health measures at ports of entry, but there is no immediate need for restrictions on travel and trade.

Africa CDC also vowed to continue to monitor the situation and provide updates to Member States and the public as more information becomes available about this SARS-CoV-2 variant.

On 21 December, Africa CDC convened an emergency meeting of the Africa Taskforce on Coronavirus Response (AFTCOR), where the Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa, led by Prof. Tulio de Olivera and Salim Abdool Karim, shared findings from South Africa.

According to the Africa CDC, the meeting discussed what is known, what is not known, and what needs to be done about this new variant.

Africa CDC Institute for Pathogen Genomics (IPG) also directed to “immediately coordinate further actions by a continental network of clinical laboratory centers of excellence to enhance surveillance of the new variant virus.”

African countries also urged to enhance implementation of ongoing public health and social measures to prevent further transmission of COVID-19, including correct and consistent mask-wearing, physical distancing and hand hygiene.

This new variant is defined by multiple non-synonymous mutations in the spike (S) protein. Three of these mutations are located on the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the spike protein – the most notable being the N501Y mutation on the receptor binding motif that binds to the human Angiotensin Converting Enzyme-2 (ACE2) receptor.

Preliminary analysis from South Africa and the United Kingdom suggest that this new variant may be associated with increased transmissibility and a higher viral load than the previously circulating variants. 

However, researchers are conducting further investigations on this new N501Y variant to determine if it is more infectious, more transmissible, or has the potential to cause more severe illness. Research is also being conducted to assess the impact of the mutations on the performance of existing molecular diagnostics, serological assays, therapeutics, and vaccines.

As of Wednesday, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the African continent reached 2,544,950, as the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic in Africa reached 60,254, according to figures from the Africa CDC.

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