Sat | Jan 16, 2021

Jamaica on lookout for new COVID strain

Published:Wednesday | December 23, 2020 | 12:11 AMEdmond Campbell/Senior Staff Reporter
Professor Peter Figueroa says that Jamaica will have to depend on its international medical partners to monitor local samples to determine whether the new coronavirus strain is present here.
Professor Peter Figueroa says that Jamaica will have to depend on its international medical partners to monitor local samples to determine whether the new coronavirus strain is present here.
Dr Alverston Bailey is concerned that the 16 per cent vaccination plan will not offer Jamaica herd immunity.
Dr Alverston Bailey is concerned that the 16 per cent vaccination plan will not offer Jamaica herd immunity.
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Professor Peter Figueroa, one of Jamaica’s leading epidemiologists, said that if visitors from the United Kingdom (UK) to Jamaica in the last few weeks were observing strict quarantine measures, the risk of transmission of a new variant of coronavirus would be reduced locally.

Reports in the UK media said that the mutation is 70 per cent more contagious than the SARS-CoV2 strain first detected by scientists in early December.

Figueroa pointed out, however, that there was no evidence that the new variant was more virulent or made people any sicker.

The public health professor said that if established protocols such as the wearing of masks in public, washing of hands and physical distancing are observed, the virus will be contained.

Figueroa said that Jamaica does not have a facility to know if people have the variant or not.

“We would have to isolate the strain and send it abroad to be looked at,” he told The Gleaner.

“I know that we were supposed to be sending samples of our virus abroad through the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to look at it because they want to track the virus everywhere to see if there is another variant,” Figueroa said.

However, when asked if Jamaica had detected any new strain of the virus through this process, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health & Wellness, Dunstan Bryan, said he had not received any such report.

The public health expert said he believed the current COVID-19 vaccines would still be effective against the new variant.

As the peak of the Christmas season approaches, Figueroa is urging Jamaicans not to let down their guard.

“Even when families are gathering and friends are gathering, they need to pay attention to the protocols because we are moving into our cooler months,” he said.

He noted that flu and other respiratory viruses transmit more readily during the winter months.

Vaccine escape

Meanwhile, Dr Alverston Bailey, professor of occupation health and safety at the University of Technology, said that health experts abroad have indicated that the virus appears to be assuming artificial intelligence and was on a “pathway to vaccine escape”.

“It means that the virus might develop the ability to elude the vaccine and become more contagious,” said Bailey, while speaking on Monday to Radio Jamaica’s ‘Beyond the Headlines’ host Dionne Jackson Miller.

“Now that is the most worrisome concept that has been raised since I have been doing my research on this particular issue,” he added.

He cautioned that Jamaica should not wait on herd immunity as this might facilitate mutation of the virus.

Bailey said that while the current vaccine should be a buffer against the new variant, there was no guarantee that it would have the same impact in the future.

The doctor said that the Government’s plan to vaccinate 16 per cent of the population in 2021 was inadequate in order to confer herd immunity.

Bailey argued that if it was a question of funding that confined the vaccination exercise to an initial 450,000 Jamaicans, steps should be made to establish a vaccination fund to bolster government financing.

He cited the National Health Fund, the National Housing Trust, and the Tourism Enhancement Fund as potential revenue streams to tap.

Hospitality workers and teachers should be included in the vulnerable group.

However, Bryan said that Jamaica was among countries that will get vaccines under the COVAX facility at discounted rates to vaccinate up to 20 per cent of their population in the first round.

He explained that the 16 per cent that Jamaica requested was based on the priority groups that were identified such as the first responders, the elderly, and senior citizens with co-morbidities.