What are the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil variants and will vaccines work? There are many thousands of different versions or variants of SARS-CoV-2 that are circulating globally. However, there are three “Variants of Concern” which have been detected in the Caribbean region (including CARICOM members).
A total of 20 countries and territories in the Caribbean region have reported the presence of at least one of three Variants of Concern of the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2.
Classification of Variants of Concern (VOC)
These three variants of SARS-CoV-2, first detected by the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil and known as B.1.1.7, B.1.351, and B.126.96.36.199, have been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as Variants of Concern (VOC), in consultation with the WHO Working Group on the Evolution of SARS-CoV-2 which have been focusing on the research and analysis:
1. The United Kingdom variant (known as B.1.1.7, UK, British or Kent Variant) has spread to more than 131 countries around the world including 19 countries and territories in the Caribbean region.
2. The South African variant (known as B.1.351) found in at least 80 countries around the world including 5 countries in the Caribbean region.
3. The Brazil variant (also known as B.1.1.28 or P.1) found in 45 countries including 4 in the Caribbean region.
The variants may increase transmissibility of the virus, increase its virulence, or decrease the effectiveness of public health and social measures or diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics, although much remains to be learned about them according to PAHO.
Contagion of Variant
Several international studies have established that the UK B.1.17 which is more prevalent in the Caribbean than the two other VOCs is up to 90% more transmissible and most of the people infected with this variant are asymptomatic.
List of Caribbean islands with one or more Variants of Concern
The Caribbean countries and territories that reported one or more of the three variants include: Aruba, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, Bonaire, Cayman Islands, Cuba, Curacao, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Guadeloupe, Jamaica, Martinique, Puerto Rico, Saint Barthelemy, Saint Martin, Saint Lucia, Sint Maarten, Trinidad and Tobago and Turks and Caicos.
Almost all of Bermuda’s new cases are of the UK B.1.1.7. In the past weeks, at least 75% of infections in Curacao was notably caused by the UK B.1.1.7 variant. Bonaire is also currently experiencing a major outbreak of COVID-19 like they have never seen before and is mainly caused by the UK variant.
The virus is now present everywhere in Bonaire and is infecting people at work, at home and within their circle of friends disclosed Dr. Marian Luinstra-Passchier in a press statement on April 1, 2021. Aruba is also experience an outbreak of the UK B.1.1.7.
To protect its citizens, St. Maarten has temporarily closed its borders to Aruba, Curaçao and Bonaire as of Monday, April 5, 2021 to stop the rapid spread of the UK variant (B.1.1.7) and the COVID-19 virus as a whole. The situation on each island will be reviewed on a two week basis according to St. Maarten’s Eva Lista-de Weever, Epidemiologist, and head of Ministry of VSA Collective Prevention Services (CPS).
Danger of New Variants
There is some research suggesting that the UK B.1.1.7 may be associated with a 30% higher risk of death. However, the evidence is not conclusive. Like the original version of the virus, the risk is highest for people who are elderly or have underlying health conditions.
There is no evidence that any of the variants cause much more serious illness for most people who become infected with the virus.
According to WHO, “Stopping the spread at the source remains key.” Current measures continue to work against new variants by reducing the amount of viral transmission and therefore also reducing opportunities for the virus to mutate.
These measures to reduce transmission include frequent hand washing, wearing a mask, physical distancing, good ventilation and avoiding crowded places or closed settings.
New Variants and Vaccine
Several data sources suggest that the COVID-19 vaccines should still work against new variants of the coronavirus although might bot be as well. Data from a UK trial published in the Lancet suggest that the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine is 70.4% effective against the UK B.1.1.7 variant.
“With regard to the Brazil variant (P.1), a recent study conducted by AstraZeneca suggests that the vaccine will work against the P.1 variant from Brazil. The Brazilian regulatory authorities have assessed it and are so far satisfied by the results. So much so, that the Brazilian government has since approved the AstraZeneca vaccine for use in its population where the P.1 variant is widespread and has ordered more than 200 million doses of Astra Zeneca,” according to a press release from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
Vaccination in the Caribbean Region
Most Caribbean countries have begun its vaccination programme and aim to achieve herd immunity which requires 70% of population to be vaccinated. As of April 2, 2021, a total of 2,409,056 persons have received vaccines across the Caribbean region. This figure represents 5% of the combined population of 34 Caribbean countries and territories being followed by Caribbean Update.
Caribbean Update COVID-19 statistical data for the Caribbean region is being presented by Mitsy Ellis-Simpson of MJS & Associates Inc, a management consulting firm based in the British Virgin Islands.
Saba is the only Caribbean island to reach 70% of their population vaccinated. Bermuda has vaccinated over 50% of its population with the Cayman Islands following closely.
“Priority should be given to vaccinating high-risk groups everywhere to maximize global protection against new variants and minimize the risk of transmission. Moreover, ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is more critical than ever to address the evolving pandemic. As more people get vaccinated, we expect virus circulation to decrease, which will then lead to fewer mutations,” reported WHO.
Why is it important to get vaccinated even if there are new variants of the virus?
“We must not put off getting vaccinated because of our concerns about new variants and we must proceed with vaccination even if the vaccines may be somewhat less effective against some of the COVID-19 virus variants,” reported WHO, adding that, “we need to use the tools we have in hand even while we continue to improve those tools. We are all safe only if everyone is safe.”
In other words, it is important to be extra vigilant since COVID-19 and its new variants which seem to spread more easily will significantly disrupt society.