Scientists have asked Malawians to strictly adhere to the Covid-19 preventive measures following the emergence of a new variant known as B.1.1.529 that has high multiple mutations and can weaken immunity despite vaccination.
International media reports indicate that the new variant, also known as the Omicron variant, may drive further waves and that the high number of mutations of the variant may help the virus evade immunity.
In an interview yesterday, Malawi University of Science and Technology microbiologist Gama Bandawe said to date it has proven difficult to avoid the emergence of new variants, especially due to their transmissibility.
He said: “It looks like once a variant is very successful, it is able to quickly replace the currently circulating variants and so, no matter how hard we try, it’s always proven very difficult to prevent a particular variant from entering the country.
“So, there is a very good chance that if there is a new variant that has emerged and already seen in other countries, there is a possibility that it will drive the next wave.”
Bandawe said that while variants will continue to emerge, leading to an increase in infections and transmissibility, there will be need to intensify preventive measures and step up efforts on vaccination to ensure that many people are protected.
He also called for the need to track and monitor variants emerging elsewhere. He said Malawi will have to pool resources together to strengthen monitoring.
Bandawe said such an arrangement will also be important to sequence the variants and report back to Malawians.
In a separate interview via e-mail, Kamuzu University of Health Sciences professor of epidemiology Adamson Muula also said it is important to know that variants are likely to be developing in all countries where there is still a high circulation of the virus.
He said: “There are likely variants that may have developed in this country, but since we are not in the habit of genotyping the Covid-19 virus, we may never know.
“I am bringing this up in an effort to allay unnecessary fears that people may have with the new variant. How the variant from Botswana behaves is not yet clear currently although the fear mongers have already started raising people’s emotions.”
Muula said it is, therefore, important that people should continue getting vaccinated, stressing that it is the best way to minimise fear of each new variant that shows up.
On his part, infectious disease expert and epidemiologist Titus Divala said that as of now, it is important to observe whether the variant is more transmissible than the Delta, which was first detected in India.
He said there will also be need to establish or monitor whether it will be able to escape the power of vaccines and whether it has any effect on severity, including hospitalisation and death.
To date, Malawi has had three recognised variants of concern (VOCs) as classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO), namely Delta or B.1.617.2, Beta or B.1.351 first reported in South African and the Alpha variant or B.1.1.7 which was diagnosed in the United Kingdom.
Characteristics of the VOCs include increased transmissibility and secondary attack for Alpha and Delta.
In a statement on Saturday, Ministry of Health Principal Secretary Charles Mwansambo said from samples collected so far, the Omicron variant has not been detected in Malawi.
He said: “However, surveillance on the same has been intensified and the country will be informed accordingly on any new developments.”
But Mwansambo said it is important to note that while the virus is mutating, basic preventive and containment measures remain the same.
As of Saturday, there were 61 889 cumulative confirmed cases with 2 304 deaths, 58 763 total recovered cases, 590 active cases and three patients admitted to treatment units nationwide. Malawi reported its first cases of Covid-19 on April 2 2020.