By Anél Lewis
The World Health Organization Africa, together with South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI), University of the Western Cape (UWC), is launching a new Regional Centre of Excellence for Genomic Surveillance and Bioinformatics (RCEGSB) in Cape Town.
The announcement of this new centre, which will help scale-up sequencing and bioinformatics on the continent for COVID-19 and other diseases, comes as scientists confirm that samples of a new C.1.2 coronavirus strain has been detected in our nine provinces.
Speaking at last week’s online World Health Organization (WHO) Africa media briefing, regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, said: “Knowing which variants are circulating and where is critical for informing effective response operations.” The centre will support 14 Southern African countries with genome sequencing that will provide invaluable insight into the pathways Covid-19 is using to spread into communities.
It will have its own premises in the city, but some technical staff are already based at UWC to work closely with SANBI experts, said Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, Regional Virologist, WHO Regional Office for Africa. “WHO’s aim is to expand it in the near future to be an Emergency Hub for southern countries. Currently, WHO has two Emergency Hubs, in the East and in the West.”
Professor Alan Christoffels, Director of SANBI, said it was too soon to raise the alarm about the new C.1.2 coronavirus variant. The variant has been found in 130 cases in 10 countries globally, including five African countries where most of the cases are occurring.
South Africa is one of these. “This is less than 3% of all the samples sequenced - it is extremely low. At this stage, while it has been detected in some provinces, this is extremely small in comparison to what we are sequencing (for the delta variant). There is no cause for concern.”
He added: “Viruses evolve, so while this variant has been detected, we should wait and monitor it further.”
The C.1.2 variant has not yet been declared a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization. “While the variant has some concerning mutations, there’s no evidence yet that it is more transmissible nor that it affects vaccine efficacy,” said Dr Moeti. Dr Gumede-Moeletsi said that while samples had been detected in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, we should “remain calm until we have all the evidence for C.1.2”.
The good news is that all vaccines have proven to be effective with any variant of Covid-19, she added.
Prof Christoffels said work to mobilise resources throughout Africa to deal with COVID-19 and other epidemics has been ongoing since WHO Africa and Africa CDC announced its continental plan in August 2020.
“We have seen a successful rollout of the resources needed to sequence genomes and provide analytical protocols. As a result, we have been building a skill set that has to go beyond COVID-19.” The COVID-19 sequencing laboratory network in Africa produced nearly 40 000 sequencing data. “How we respond to (this virus) will put us in good stead to respond to the other diseases,” said Christoffels.
Dr Moeti added: “The third wave has shown us how variants can hijack the efforts to tame the pandemic. Countries must step up surveillance because without genomic information, variants can spread undetected. You can’t fix what you don’t measure.”