Africa CDC: New virus variant appears to emerge in Nigeria

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) - Another new variant of the coronavirus appears to have emerged in Nigeria, Africa's senior health official said Thursday, but added that further investigation was needed.
The discovery could set new alarms in the pandemic after similar variants were announced in the UK and South Africa, leading to a swift return of international travel restrictions and other measures once the world enters a big holiday season.
"It's a separate line from the UK and South Africa," the head of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention John Nkengasong told reporters. He said the CDC of Nigeria and the African Center of Excellence in Infectious Disease Genomics will analyze more samples in this country - the most populous in Africa.
"Give us some time ... it's very early," he said.
The warning regarding the apparent new variant was based on two or three genetic sequences, he said, but that and the warning from South Africa late last week were enough to trigger an emergency Africa CDC meeting this week.
The variant was found in two patient samples taken on August 3 and October 9 in the Nigerian state of Osun. This emerges from a research report published by The Associated Press.
In contrast to the variant observed in the UK, “We did not observe such a rapid rise in the lineage in Nigeria and have no evidence that the P681H variant contributes to increased transmission of the virus in Nigeria. However, the relative difference in levels of genomic surveillance in Nigeria versus the UK could mean that the ability to detect such changes is reduced, "the paper said.
The news comes as infections pick up again in parts of the African continent.
The new variant in South Africa is now the predominant one, Nkengasong said, as confirmed infections in the country approach 1 million. While the variant transmits quickly and the viral load is higher, it is not yet clear whether it leads to more severe illness, he said.
"We believe this mutation will have no impact on COVID-19 vaccine use on the continent," he said of the South African variant.
The South African health minister announced late Wednesday an "alarming rate of spread" in the country. More than 14,000 new cases were confirmed last day, including more than 400 deaths. It was the largest one-day increase in cases.
The country has more than 950,000 infections and COVID-19 is "relentless," said Health Minister Zwelini Mkhize.
The African continent now has more than 2.5 million confirmed cases, or 3.3% of the world's cases. Across the continent, infections have increased 10.9% in the past four weeks, including a 52% increase in Nigeria and 40% in South Africa, according to Nkengasong.
For the first time since the confirmation of the first virus case in sub-Saharan Africa in February, Nigeria is in the spotlight during this pandemic as infections escalate.
"In the past few weeks the number of samples in the reference laboratory (Nigeria CDC) has increased enormously," CDC Director General Chikwe Ihekweazu tweeted on Thursday. “This has resulted in an unusual delay in testing, but we're working around the clock.” Many colleagues cut their vacation time and return to work.
Nigeria now has more than 80,000 confirmed coronavirus cases.
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