Medical researchers are investigating a mystery variant of coronavirus that could be specific to Kenya, the Health ministry reported yesterday.
The strain, discovered on May 17 from routine samples collected in Kisumu, is said to have characteristics of both Indian (B.1.617) and the UK (B.1.1.7) variants.
The variant is, however, still under investigation to establish its genetic composition.
“This new variant still needs further characterisation and therefore our scientists are still sequencing to find out whether it truly falls under the variants concern,” said Dr Francis Kuria, the director of public health at the ministry.
“But, having two variants in one could be more lethal.”
He said it would take up to a month or more of genomic surveillance to fully characterise the new strain, which he said was a product of local transmission. This means that the new variant is within the community and is already spreading, a concern for the fight against the pandemic.
Health Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe yesterday noted that since the new variant was not imported like the Indian one, more vigilance is required to stop it.
Four variants of concern
“We are going to upscale contact tracing in the country so that we prevent the new variant from spreading,” he told reporters in Nairobi.
“It is important to note that, the ongoing genomic surveillance has revealed early and established community transmission, of both UK and Indian variants of concern in Kisumu, Mombasa and Kilifi counties.”
According to the World Health Organisation, a mutant becomes a variant of concern when it has a clinical or public health significance that affects its spread, severity, effectiveness and testing.
So far, there are four variants of concern globally — Indian, UK, South African and Brazilian. The Indian variant has been identified to spread faster than the others. Genomic surveillance has shown that there are 28 Indian variants, six UK variants, one South African variant and another three sub-variants from the main Indian variant.
Except for the Brazilian variant, the other three variants of concern have been identified in the country, according to Dr Samuel Oyola, a specialist in genomics and molecular biology at the International Livestock Research Institute.
The Health ministry has noted that counties that have these variants are experiencing community transmissions and with their high transmissibility rate, there is an upsurge of cases.
Scientists also say most variants of concern have a higher secondary attack rate and spread faster among susceptible persons.
“The associated surge in cases is already draining the health system in the affected counties. Good thing, the existing vaccines in the country are effective against these variants,” said Mr Kagwe.
Prof Matilu Mwau, a researcher at Kenya Medical Research Institute (Kemri) said it is normal for viruses to mutate and that no one should be surprised if countries are discovering new variants.
“If we are still recording new infections it means that the body is subjecting the already available variants to pressure. Those that manage to be controlled will and if we don’t then definitely we are going to come up with new variants,” Prof Matilu said.
He said there are very many variants of the virus but that should not worry Kenyans since most of them are not of concern.
“Ordinarily, Kenyans would think that if a new variant has been identified, then it should be lethal but that is not the case,” he said, adding that there is more to a strain before it is classified as a variant of concern.
More research, he said, is needed to name the mystery variant and get to know whether it is more infectious, more lethal, its response to vaccines and ability to make people sick.
Dr Andrew Suleh, renal and tropical medicine specialist, said there is a likelihood that the variant identified in the country that has both Indian and UK characteristics could have more lethal implications.