BY NQOBANI NDLOVU
A TOP World Health Organisation (WHO) official has red-flagged Zimbabwe over the possibility of a new variant circulating in the country following the outbreak of an unexplained flu bug.
Health authorities in Bulawayo recently admitted that the country’s second largest city had been hit by an influenza outbreak, but dismissed growing fears that it was the Omicron variant.
As the world grapples with a surge in cases of the Omicron variant, WHO country representative Alexio Gasasira warned that Zimbabwe could be battling an unknown variant with flu-like symptoms.
“I cannot rule out the flu we are seeing here may be a new variant. Let us not speculate, so we are very much encouraged by efforts to build capacity in genomic sequencing and training of scientists,” Gasarira told journalists drawn from South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Namibia and Zimbabwe on Tuesday during a virtual media cafè on COVID-19 and HIV.
Genomic sequencing is a laboratory method that is used to determine the entire genetic make-up of a specific organism or cell type.
“We must encourage our scientists to continue studying because if we do not have evidence, we are moving blind. If we cannot sequence more samples, we may have other new variants. It is very possible that we may have a Zimbabwean variant because variants are discovered every day.”
This comes as Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 cases are at their peak, with the country having recorded an average 4 000 new cases every day in the past two weeks.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa on Tuesday extended the two-week lockdown as the country recorded a 472% jump in new cases inside two weeks.
Health experts have warned that the country could face the worst as the festive season festivities kick in, with increased travel accompanied with evident non-adherence to COVID-19 preventive regulations.
Gasarira said with more genomic sequencing, the country would be able to detect which variant, and proportion of other variants, was circulating in the country to better mount an effective response.
“In the third week of November, we still had a significant amount of the Delta variant circulating in Zimbabwe. By the first week of December, most of the samples that were collected were Omicron.
“We can’t reach a firm conclusion as to what proportion of Omicron, Delta, and other variants of interest, we still have because the number of samples that have been processed to date is very small.”
He added: “In a few weeks, to come, we will be more confident to confirm if it is true this variant (Omicron) is causing milder illness than previous variants.
“There is a lot of speculation and one of the most important things to do in a situation like this is to keep to the facts as much as possible. Let us be honest and open when we do not fully know something.”