United Kingdom (UK) researchers are collaborating with Zimbabwean scientists through the use of latest technologies to gain insight into Covid-19 and tackle its spread.
This comes as the country has this month witnessed a surge in infections and deaths from the virus although latest figures show infections to be abating.
In partnership with the UK’s Quadram Institute, the National Microbiology Reference Laboratory (NMRL) Zimbabwe has successfully sequenced genomes to help develop what could be called a “family tree,” or phylogenetic analysis, for the virus in the country.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock confirmed the development on Twitter on Tuesday this week saying the partnership would see countries such as Zimbabwe offered laboratory capacity and advice to analyse new strains of coronavirus.
In a statement, Quadram Institute said: “Today’s announcement by Health Secretary Matt Hancock of UK support with genomics expertise to help other countries identify new Covid-19 variants, comes as researchers at the Quadram Institute outline their work supporting scientists in Zimbabwe.
“UK government announcements of the New Variant Assessment Platform will see other countries offered UK laboratory capacity and advice to analyse new strains of coronavirus
“In common with many other countries facing the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Zimbabwe recorded its first recorded case of the SARS-CoV-2 in March 2020.”
Extensive public health interventions were then swiftly put in place to help control transmission and protect people.
Part of the public health measures taken by Zimbabwe included identifying and understanding the detailed genetic epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2, especially its behaviour in terms of transmission, capacity to mutate and virulence.
According to Quadram Institute, the genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 was key in helping Zimbabwe understand and track the virus as it evolved, identify where the virus was coming from, how it was spreading, and inform public health control measures needed to limit its spread.
“To complete the initiative, with this kind of detailed genetic detective work involved, the Ministry of Health and Child Care tasked its NMRL in Harare, with sequencing of the genetic material of positive samples from 100 coronavirus patients, between March and June 2020.
“Key objectives for NMRL sought to help understand initial transmission of the disease, gain insight into domestic transmission of the virus, add context to the regional and global scientific data and to evaluate the role genomic sequencing could play in analysing infection outbreak,” reads the statement.
The Quadram Institute on the Norwich Research Park, UK, as part of the Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, was also undertaking genomic sequencing for the UK government.
According Quadram Institute report, given the long-standing relationship and partnership between Zimbabwe and the UK in terms of academic and scientific research, the Quadram Institute was ideally placed to help provide the much-needed support and expertise to NMRL in Zimbabwe where necessary.
The Quadram Institute’s Professor Rob Kingsley said: “We were already working with scientists at NMRL to study typhoid fever in Zimbabwe and we used this close working relationship to rapidly pivot in response to the Covid-19 emergency. Our Zimbabwean colleagues continue to strive to apply the most recent technologies to address the ongoing epidemic.”
The findings of the NMRL indicate that regional migration in southern Africa played a significant role in the transmission of the virus, more so than intercontinental travel.
Whilst early cases of Covid-19 in Zimbabwe were introductions from travel from the USA, UK and Dubai, later cases centred around continental migration, largely from South Africa.
The genomic analysis of Zimbabwe’s 100 samples showed there were at least 25 separate independent introductions of SARS-CoV-2 into the country that were associated with eight global lineages.
From May 2020 onwards, surveillance highlighted a rise in cases originating with Zimbabwean residents returning from neighbouring countries, especially South Africa.
Most of the returnees were asymptomatic and there was a two-week residential quarantine system in place. Testing was undertaken and on multiple occasions, generated positive results for SARS-CoV-2.
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