(Barbados Today) CARICOM’s disease watchdog is stepping up its tracking of COVID-19 variants across a region now battling a surge of deaths and infections largely attributed to the highly infectious Delta strain, it said Friday.
The Trinidad-based Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) will also be on the lookout for the possible presence of the new Delta Plus variant, a mutation of the Delta variant that has been detected in at least 42 countries.
The Delta Plus mutation, also known as AY.4.2, has gained ground on an already extremely transmissible Delta variant, according to epidemiologists. It now accounts for about 10 per cent of sequenced virus samples in England.
CARPHA will be using whole-genome sequencing (WGS) technology to detect COVID-19 variants at the CARPHA Medical Microbiology Laboratory (CMML) from November 15, the agency said.
“The process will allow CMML to monitor COVID-19 and track specific mutations of COVID-19 that have been circulating in CARPHA member states,” CARPHA said, adding that the new service will provide a turnaround time of 14 days after receipt of samples.
Samples from CARICOM member nations, including Barbados, were sent to the Trinidad lab which confirmed the emergence of the Alpha variant, imported from the UK towards the end of last year and the Indian-originated Delta variant in August.
CARPHA has also confirmed the presence in the region of the Gamma strain which was first sequenced in Brazil and the Beta variant which has remained confined largely to Southern Africa.
CARPHA’s Director of Surveillance, Disease Prevention and Control Dr Lisa Indar said: “The whole-genome sequencing process will allow the CMML to detect changes that may occur in the COVID-19 virus fingerprint over time and accelerate the delivery of results to member states. A better understanding of the virus’s genetic makeup could save lives by informing public health and clinical management, as well as support the development of medicines and vaccines to combat the virus.
The top epidemiologist explained that “as a virus evolves, random changes or mutations occur. These changes can lead to the emergence of a new virus lineage, which is quite common. The genomic sequences of these new lineages will differ and are referred to as variations. Although many variants have little effect on the virus’s ability to propagate or cause disease, some changes can increase transmissibility, or allow the virus to evade natural or vaccine-induced immunity”.
As the regional reference laboratory, the CMML continues to conduct tests for suspected COVID-19 cases and reports laboratory results within the 15-nation bloc. The CMML boasts a turnaround time of 48 hours for PCR test results for member states.
Dr Joy St. John, CARPHA’s Executive Director praised the World Bank for financing the expansion of “the suite of services” CARPHA can now offer CARICOM nations “in bolstering their fight against COVID-19”.
Since last December, CARPHA and the University of the West Indies (UWI) have been working on a joint project to determine the different lineages of the coronavirus known formally as SARS-CoV-2 that circulate in the Caribbean. UWI will continue testing samples and further communication with CARICOM member nations will determine how many samples they can accommodate, CARPHA said.
The CMML has plans to expand the scope of its gene sequencing services to include laboratory surveillance of other types of viruses and diseases of public health concern, CARPHA said.