Gov’t says UK health agency erred in its ‘Antigua variant’ Covid claim

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Government says it expects that Public Health England (PHE) will retract its website posting, which alleged that “an Antigua variant” of Covid-19 had been discovered in the United Kingdom (UK). 

This after Ministry of Health officials addressed “inaccurate information” published in the UK and Caribbean media that the variant was discovered by PHE, an executive agency of the Department of Health and Social Care in the UK, a release from the Office of the Prime Minister said yesterday.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne claimed that, after discussing the issue, PHE representatives conceded that they erred in posting on their website any reference to Antigua and Barbuda in relation to persons they believed were infected with a variant of the novel coronavirus. 

“Prime Minister Browne also wrote [yesterday] to several UK and Caribbean media that carried the story based on the PHE website posting [on Thursday],” the release said. 

“In his letters to media, the Prime Minister emphasised that it was as long ago as the first week of February that PHE discovered a family of five persons who had holidayed in Antigua. More than 32 days have elapsed since the discovery and the negative results of contact tracing in the UK. Clearly any variant of concern would have emerged by now.”

Additionally, he stressed that “daily tests conducted on material from Antigua by reputable external agencies have found no variant arising from Antigua”. 

PM Browne also noted the importance of emphasising that the virus was discovered by PHE in early February, “only in two persons who were on a brief visit to Antigua, and that three other family members were designated as ‘probable’. Further, PHE is not saying that the variant was contracted in Antigua. Indeed, they do not know if the infected persons might have contracted the virus in England before travelling to Antigua”. 

He added that even on its own website PHE has made it clear that contact tracing teams have completed thorough investigations to identify and follow up any close contacts and no additional cases have been found. PHE also stated that the “variant identified in the UK has been designated a Variant Under Investigation” and not as a “Variant of Concern”. 

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Observer media contacted the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) to find out if they had discovered any variant in samples from Antigua and Barbuda.

Yesterday, CARPHA’s response in part stated, “The appearance of variants is part of the normal cycle of viral infection and replication and should not be considered an unusual process.

“Because the variants appear more frequently, the more subjects become infected. It is therefore essential to maintain all the measures that promote and prevent the occurrence of new infections (use of masks, washing hands, social distancing, avoiding crowds, etc.).

“The appearance of new variants does not justify in any way the interruption of the vaccination campaigns against SARS-CoV-2; cutting the transmission chains through preventive measures and the application of vaccines should be the primary objective at this stage of pandemic.

“Both the measures mentioned above and the mass vaccination of the population will help in the fight against the disease and the eventual end of the pandemic,” CARPHA added.

Observer has approached PHE for clarification and comment.

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