By Babajide Okeowo
Following the discovery of a new strain of the novel coronavirus in Nigeria last week by scientists at the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases (ACEGID) in southeastern Nigeria, the researcher has warned against automatic assumptions that it poses similar risks to strains that have emerged elsewhere.
This is even as they called for patience as they battle to unravel the mystery of the new strain of the virus.
ACEGID director Christian Happi said the variant was found in two out of 200 samples of virus collected from patients between August 3 and October 9 and were taken from the same state in Nigeria at different times.
They show a variant “different to the one that has been circulating in Nigeria, different from the one in South Africa and different from the one in the UK,” he said in an interview with AFP.
Happi stressed that scientists were racing to unlock knowledge about the Nigeria strain and urged people not to “extrapolate.”
“We have no idea, no evidence to say that this variant is linked to the spike we are seeing in Nigeria or not,” said Happi, explaining that samples from the latest cases were being analysed for an answer.
Happi, a Cameroon-raised, Harvard-trained professor of molecular biology, works in a state-of-the-art lab in Ede, southeastern Nigeria.
It is one of only 12 in Africa designed to sequence viral genetic code and track mutations — telltale changes that can be used to build a family tree of the microbe.
From this, the scientists at Ede believe the variant evolved “within Nigeria, I don’t think it was imported from anywhere,” said Happi.
“When changes occur, what matters most, what we’re focusing on, is the spike protein,” he said, referring to the prong-like protein by which coronavirus latches onto a cell and infects it.
Happi said there was a “tendency to extrapolate” after a discovery of this kind.
But he cautioned strongly against automatically assuming that what happened in one population setting would also happen elsewhere.
On his part, John Nkengasong, head of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, the African Union’s health agency, also urged patience as scientists worked to understand the Nigerian variant.
“Give us some time,” he said in a videoconference from Addis Ababa. “It’s still very early.”
Nkengasong appealed to Africans not to let down their guard, warning of the danger of the second wave of infection.