Delay over Covid variant identification down to ‘error’

Dr Lester Simon
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by Gemma Handy

[email protected] 

Human “error” accounts for the four-month lapse between coronavirus samples being taken and the confirmation that new Covid variants had been detected in Antigua.

The hospital’s chief pathologist Dr Lester Simon last night apologised for the delay which meant that two additional strains of the virus which had appeared in the country were only revealed this week.

Up to last night, the twin island nation still had zero active cases.

The alpha variant – first identified in the UK in December – was found in 13 positive samples taken in Antigua and Barbuda between February 14 and May 6. The beta variant – first identified in South Africa –was found in two samples taken in the twin island nation in April.

The first samples showing possible variants were sent away for scrutiny in March, Dr Simon said. Health chiefs finally received confirmation of the alpha and beta strains on Sunday – news which was made public on Tuesday afternoon causing widespread speculation about the time lapse.

“It was an error; I put my hand up and take responsibility for that,” Dr Simon told a press conference.

“CARPHA wanted more information, I thought it had been sent so there was some delay and my apologies for that,” he explained, adding that the regional health body has also been under pressure due to high numbers of tests being sent there for analysis.

Antigua has had the capacity to test for Covid variants itself since last week, a move which Dr Simon dubbed “exciting” for the public hospital’s laboratory. But while mutations can be detected, the country still relies on the Trinidad-based organisation to specify precisely which strain it is.

The alpha variant has now been detected in more than 170 countries worldwide, while the beta strain is thought to be in around 119. While both are significantly more transmissible than the original version of Covid, studies suggest current vaccines are still effective at preventing infection.

Both Dr Simon and Chief Medical Officer Dr Rhonda Sealey-Thomas, who also addressed the press conference, stressed that the chance of more new strains of the virus appearing locally remains high.

“There is a very, very real possibility of more variants, which is why we have to up the ante with vaccinations,” Dr Simon said. “We can’t close the country’s borders for economic reasons, so the risk is there.”

To date, more than 36,000 people have received a first dose of the jab in Antigua and Barbuda, while around 28,000 people have had a second shot. That’s still a long way off the government’s 70 percent target to reach herd immunity.

Lingering vaccine hesitancy is a major stumbling block – and those fears are not limited to the general public but extend to the country’s medical sector too.

Dr Simon acknowledged fears among hospital staff, and revealed meetings had taken place with employees in a bid to alleviate their concerns.

He could not offer a percentage for how much of the hospital workforce had been inoculated to date but noted “there has been some hesitancy”, adding “people who work in medicine are people just like everyone else”.

The health chiefs were also quizzed on their views about the threat posed by cruise tourists with the first ship to return to Antigua since the start of the pandemic due to dock in just three weeks.

Dr Sealey-Thomas said, “I would love all cruise passengers and crew coming here to be fully vaccinated; that would be our preference.”

 Dr Simon was more vociferous saying vessels bearing non-vaccinated visitors should be denied entry.

“Turn them around, let them go about their business because our country comes first. That way we would only get the tourists we deserve,” he said.

The CMO ended with a strident note of caution, urging the population to stay vigilant to Covid safety rules despite the country currently having no active cases.

“Zero active cases is a very good place to be, but now we have to keep it there. Schools are opening in September, other activities are taking place, we want to stay on the UK’s ‘green list’, we want to maintain our level one ranking with the CDC [USA’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and we want to see cruise ships back.

“But we have to continue to do what we are doing – and do it even better,” the CMO warned.

That means continuing to wear facemasks and practicing social distancing, she said.

“Vaccination is the key public health measure that will allow us to continue to remain at zero, be safe and get back to those activities. I do not want to see a return to distance learning for schoolchildren in September,” she added.

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