by Gemma Handy
First there was bewilderment, then outrage. Next came the comic internet memes, followed by a clarification from England’s public health agency – and now a demand for compensation.
Claims that a new variant of the Covid-19 virus has links to Antigua and Barbuda is the controversy that shows little sign of abating.
At the weekend, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said the UK should stump up 100,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine in exchange for the “damage” wreaked on the twin island nation’s already battered tourism industry.
Sparks flew last Thursday when Public Health England (PHE) announced that a new coronavirus variant had been identified in the UK in two people who had recently travelled to Antigua. While the body conceded that the variant was not deemed concerning, the news was enough to trigger an onslaught of headlines across the world.
It was quickly dubbed the ‘Antigua variant’ by the British press, even in the absence of information about precisely where it had originated from.
Local social media users will also have noticed a minor meme fest poking fun at the notion of Antigua and Barbuda having its own variant of the virus.
While viruses mutate constantly, some Covid variants found in other parts of the world have shown faster transmissibility and lower levels of response to certain vaccines. Fears abounded that the news would deter international travellers from visiting the country.
“Maybe [the UK] can correct the damage by giving us some AstraZeneca vaccines,” the PM said. “I mean, some damage was done. So on the issue of compensation, let’s talk compensation in vaccine terms – 100,000 vaccines will do it.”
When questioned by Observer yesterday, a PHE spokesman said the original announcement about the variant had since been reworded on the agency’s website.
But the authority refused to comment on claims that the original text had had a negative impact on Antigua and Barbuda’s economic mainstay.
“The text on the PHE website was amended in order to clarify that, despite the travel link to Antigua, there is so far no conclusive evidence to indicate where the variant VUI-202103/01 may have first emerged,” the spokesman said.
A statement released by the British High Commission in St John’s on Saturday was rather more contrite, saying it regretted any misunderstanding.
It said the Commission was “concerned about inaccurate media reporting” about the variant.
“The British High Commission should like to confirm there is no scientific evidence to determine where this variant first emerged.
“Giving variants a country’s name is inaccurate, unhelpful, and can generate prejudices and misunderstanding. All viruses mutate over time and, since the start of the pandemic, many thousands of variants have been identified in the UK and across the world,” it continued.
The Commission pointed out that most variants become extinct as they stop being passed on, a process assisted by testing, contact tracing and isolation.
“We regret any misunderstanding that may have arisen over this matter. The UK government will continue to work closely with Antigua and Barbuda health officials in our common goal to overcome the ongoing threat to lives and livelihoods posed by this virus,” the statement said.
It ended with an offer on behalf of PHE to support the government of Antigua and Barbuda by sequencing any samples transferred to the UK to help curtail the virus’ spread.
PHE’s website says while the variant in question contains spike mutations usually associated with variants of concern, it does not have specific features that would lead to it being designated as such.
“Contact tracing teams have completed thorough investigations to identify and follow up any close contacts and no additional cases have been found to date,” it adds.