Professor of molecular genetics and virology Christine Carrington has said while there are several covid19 variants under investigation, none of them are cause for concern in Trinidad and Tobago now.
Carrington was speaking at the Ministry of Health’s covid19 media briefing on Monday.
She said in the year since covid19 became a global pandemic, one of the concerns which has arisen is the number of variants of the virus that have surfaced. She said the B117 variant, otherwise known as the United Kingdom (UK) variant, has been detected so far in seven Caribbean countries and has caused rapid community spread.
On January 21, the Ministry of Health confirmed the first covid19 variant of concern (UK) case. Carrington said this case, however, was in a controlled, quarantined environment and did not lead to community spread as in the other regional cases. “The (covid19) protocols are doing (their) job,” she said.
Other variants of concern include the B1351 (South African variant) and the P1 (Brazilian variant).
She said while there have not been any reported cases of the South African variant to date in the Caribbean, the ministry did detect the Brazilian variant in TT. The sample was taken from a passenger on a boat, who was not allowed to disembark owing to border and quarantine restrictions.
Another variant under investigation, B13241, was detected in Antigua. Like the UK and South African variant, it has a higher transmission rate and makes the vaccine less effective.
Carrington said the presence of these mutations is not enough to conclude the variant contains the same properties, but the ministry should know soon if it is a variant of concern.
She said there are several other variants under investigation or of interest worldwide because they have some of the mutations found in the variants of concern.
She said mutations are normal and expected. Mutations are errors made when the virus’s genome – genetic material – is copied when the virus spreads. A virus with one or more mutations is called a variant of the original virus.
She said genome sequencing studies that track the mutations show many variants have emerged. While most mutations have little or no effect on the virus’s ability to cause disease or infection, occasionally a variant emerges that affects its properties. These mutations can cause the virus to spread more or less easily.
She said the vaccines on the market are not as effective at preventing sickness against some of these variants, including the UK and South African, but evidence suggests they will work well against severe disease, hospitalisation, and death, so it is still worth getting vaccinated.
She said it is possible to prevent new mutations.
“Since mutations only occur when the virus mutates within an infected individual, the way to prevent new mutations is to prevent new infections.”
But the longer the pandemic goes on, the more chances there are of mutations.
“We want to keep these variants at bay.”
She said in the event the vaccine is less effective against the variants, it is possible to change the composition of the vaccine to protect against the variants.