Dr. Mereceline Dahl-Regis, special health advisor in the Office of the Prime Minister, yesterday confirmed that COVID-19 variants of concern have been detected in The Bahamas.
“We have been actively monitoring genomic testing from March 13 to April 17,” Dahl-Regis said during a National COVID-19 Vaccine Consultative Committee press conference.
“The results, as reported by the National Reference Lab, are showing evidence of an increasing number of genomic deletions. This is indicative of variant strains.”
When asked if she meant that health officials had detected variants of concern in The Bahamas, Dahl-Regis replied, “Yes, it indicates that … Although this is screening, this is strongly indicative.”
National Reference Laboratory Director Dr. Indira Martin said The Bahamas is awaiting “final confirmation” from the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA).
“We sent 10 samples off at the beginning of March which happens to be around the time when it appears, based on the trend data, that these variants may have come into the country and kind of expanded,” she said.
“Once we get the sequencing data from those 10 samples back, that will tell us, number one, it will help to confirm our approach internally – although we’re pretty confident because it’s being used ubiquitously throughout the world – so, it will confirm our approach,
And secondly, it will also tell us which of the three variants of concern is in country, or it might be more than one, who knows; but that’s going to be important also in terms of the ramifications of this data.
“From a pragmatic perspective, all three of the variants have an increased transmissibility. But, as you get into the weeds of it, there are differences, specific differences between each of the variants in terms of their responsiveness to particular vaccines and so on and so forth.”
Martin told The Nassau Guardian that the laboratory has surveilled 120 samples over the last five weeks.
She said the percentage of samples containing the deletion increased “week on week”.
Martin said the deletion was detected in about 20 percent of samples in mid-March.
“Last week, we surveilled about 44 positive samples — 80 percent of those had it,” she said.
There are three COVID-19 variants that have caused concern globally. The variants were identified in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.
Each of the variants has multiple mutations.
In February, South Africa halted the use of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine – of which The Bahamas has already received more than 50,000 doses – after evidence emerged that the vaccine was not effective in protecting its clinical trial participants from mild or moderate illness causes by the South African variant.
Yesterday, when asked if there were any concerns about the lack of efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine on the variant, given the possible presence of the South African variant in The Bahamas, Dr. Nikkiah Forbes, director of the National HIV/AIDS and Infectious Disease Programme, replied, “As it relates to the South African variant, we know that the AstraZeneca vaccine is partially effective. It’s about 60 percent effective.
“But, what’s important to know is that even though persons can still get mild COVID symptoms — because of breakthrough with that variant and that vaccine – that vaccine will still protect from severe cases and hospitalizations and deaths.
“So, there is somewhat of a silver lining in that regard. But, it would be important for us to continue to look at procuring other vaccines.”
Dahl-Regis said that “all efforts are being made” to access other vaccines.
She said the government has made direct contact with vaccine manufacturers.
“The Pfizer vaccine requires ultracold storage and that is not available, particularly in our archipelago,” Dahl-Regis said.
In February, Minister of Health Renward Wells said the government had approved the $100,000 purchase of ultralow COVID-19 vaccine coolers, which were expected to be in the country “very soon”.
Yesterday, Dahl-Regis continued, “Moderna directly told us we can put in an order for 2022 and Johnson & Johnson, that’s currently available, said that they don’t have adequate, they don’t have the supplies, but given that…we benefited from the COVAX Facility, we could not be in their queue to receive Johnson & Johnson vaccines.”