Experts fear new Covid-19 variants spreading locally

Covid rules

A football fan is stopped from entering Kasarani stadium on Sunday due to Covid-19 regulations.

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Fears that new, more infectious variants of the coronavirus could be spreading in Kenya have put government officials on edge.

In a memo seen by the Nation, the Ministry of Health ordered county governments and port services to improve laboratories for specimen collection, shipment and timely confirmation, indicating heightened concerns despite flattening of the Covid-19 infection curve in recent months.

“Reactivate rapid response teams and facilitate them to respond timely to alerts,” says Acting Health Director-General Patrick Amoth, in the memo sent out earlier in the week.

It adds that in the event that the new variants are detected, devolved governments should be in a position to handle them.

“Through national public health laboratories, we will collaborate with testing labs to track emerging variants through genomic surveillance,” Dr Amoth adds in the memo.

Inspector-General of Police Hillary Mutyambai has, on the other hand, warned Kenyans of stern action if caught flouting Covid-19 protocols.

The warning comes at a time many citizens are disregarding the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health to stop the spread of the deadly illness.

The police boss in a statement this week said security agents have taken note of increased incidences of unauthorised public gatherings and violation of social distancing rules, curfew, flouting of restrictions in public service vehicles and failing to wear face masks.

The statement added that conveners of rallies must be cleared by police, while bars and restaurants have to comply with the Covid-19 regulations.

During the briefing yesterday, Dr Amoth said three cases of the 501Y.V2 Covid-19 variant have been recorded in the country.

The first two were identified in two tourists, he said.

“The two men men have since gone back to their country. At the point of picking them, they were asymptomatic,” Dr Amoth said.

Contact-tracing indicated that there was no community transmission of the new strain, the ministry added.

“The second incident was at the Tanzanian border. We we did not allow the person into the country,” Dr Amoth said.

On January 28, the World Health Organization reported that Kenya is one of the African countries after Botswana, Ghana, Comoros, Zambia where the South African virus variant had been found.

The variant has also been recorded in 24 countries outside the continent.

A British military base in Nanyuki was placed on lockdown on Monday when fears spread that soldiers who arrived in the country last week might have come with the new variant of the virus.

British Army Training Unit in Kenya (Batuk) camp has been placed in enhanced isolation after a very small number of soldiers tested positive for Covid-19,” the British High Commission in Nairobi said in a statement.

“All personnel had conducted a period of isolation and tested negative before travelling to Kenya.”

Batuk stopped its activities from March last year until last month when the soldiers began returning.

The British troops were supposed to start training with their Kenyan counterparts but the programme, according to the Ministry of Defence in Nairobi, has not begun.

550 Kenyans

Following the development, Col Paul Gilby, the garrison commander, ordered 48 hours of “enhanced isolation”, which also affected about 550 Kenyans working at Batuk’s Nyati barracks.

It is not clear if the British troops mingled with Nanyuki residents and whether the country is still conducting the vigorous contact-tracing like it used to in the earlier days of the outbreak.

Lancet Group of Laboratories East Africa founder Ahmed Kalebi said there is need to find out if these new variants are spreading in Kenya.

“There hasn’t been evidence of any other case of the new South African variant in the country,” Dr Kalebi said yesterday.

He added that there is no evidence of the new B117 United Kingdom variant having been recorded in Kenya.

Another concern is the Brazil variant that has also not been recorded locally.

“Considering how the South African and British variants have spread and been documented in many other countries, they are most certainly within our borders because of air travel,” Dr Kalebi said.

He added that the country needs to assume that the highly transmissible variants are within its borders and may be in the lag phase of community transmission.