As the emergence of the new mutant strain of coronavirus continues to generate concerns across the globe, medical experts say there is currently no enough evidence to show that the new strain could infect children more easily as claimed by scientists.
The new COVID-19 variant, which was detected in the United Kingdom in September and dubbed “lineage B.1.1.7″, is said to be 70 per cent more contagious.
Nigerian researchers at the Redeemer’s university, Ede, Osun State, Christian Happi, a Professor of Molecular Biology and Genomics; and Ify Aniebo, said they had also discovered the UK variant in Nigeria sometime in August, as also confirmed in October.
Reacting to the news of the virus mutation in the UK, some scientists on Monday warned that the new mutant strain of coronavirus could infect children more easily.
Prof. Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, also on Monday, said that data on infections across the southeast showed the new variant had a statistically significant higher rate of infection among children than other strains.
He said: “There is a hint that it is has a higher propensity to infect children. That may perhaps explain some of the differences but we haven’t established any sort of causality on that but we can see that in the data.”
“During the lockdown in England, we saw a general shift in the age distribution of the virus towards children, and that was true in the variant and non-variant and that is what we would expect, given that we had locked down which reduced adult contacts but schools were still open.”
Also, Prof. Wendy Barclay, a member of the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, added: “We’re not saying that this is a virus which specifically targets children or is any more specific in its ability to infect children, but we know that COVID-19 was not as efficient in affecting children as it was in adults.”
She said one idea was that the new strain was better able to connect with human cells to infect them meaning that where the virus had previously struggled to infect children they were now “on a more level playing field” with adults in terms of infection.
But some medical experts in Nigeria told PUNCH HealthWise that available evidence on the new strain of the virus was not enough to conclusively say that it will spread faster in children or young adults.
A researcher at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, Yaba, Lagos, Dr. Gregory Ohihoin, told our correspondent that scientists need enough evidence to draw such conclusion.
The RUN’s lead researcher, Happi, said their study hadn’t observed rapid rise of the lineage in Nigeria and that they did not have sufficient evidence to indicate that the B.1.1.7 lineage is contributing to increased transmission of the virus in Nigeria.
Dr. Ohihoin, who is also Head, Infection Control and Biosecurity at NIMR, said, “The information we have now from the evidence we have is scanty to draw conclusion.
“The new strain spreads fast generally from the modelling structure they have, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it will spread faster in children or younger people.
“We don’t know yet whether younger adults will be affected by the new strain. We don’t have enough information to make that conclusion.
“The evidence on the new coronavirus strain was from modelling structure and not from experimental evidence.
“Concerning children, we don’t have enough information to make that conclusion. Everything about the new strain, the only thing that we have from evidence to modelling is that it spreads faster.”
Continuing, the researcher reiterated, “We need to get enough evidence to show clearly or conclusively that it is spreading faster in younger adults. We need to get the evidence to show that this new strain catches children more than the adults, but we don’t have that evidence yet.”
The World Health Organisation had, on Monday, said the new strain of coronavirus identified in the UK appears to be more infectious but that experts have informed the group that they do not believe it will be a problem for COVID-19 vaccines.
WHO technical lead on COVID-19, Maria Van-Kerkhove, said that the strain does have an increased rate of transmission.
“A person sick with the new strain can be expected to infect 1.5 people, while the standard strain has a reproduction number of about 1.1.
“They’re trying to determine how much of that is associated with the variant itself as well as behavioural differences in individual that this variant has infected. They’re still working through that right now”, Van-Kerkhove said.
Dr. Ohihoin, however, said that even if there is perhaps an evidence that the new strain could infect children more easily, such evidence should emanate from “our environment.”
“It will be nice for us to sequence the strains we are seeing now and compare and see whether those changes that we found were the new strains. And also see what proportion of the new strain that we have in our community.
“We have to find out the extent it has penetrated into our community. We need to find out from among our people whether the new strain is more severe; is it affecting younger people more? Is it being transmitted faster? These are the questions we have to answer for ourselves in our own environment.
“So, we need to do what is called genetic epidemiology to find those who are really getting it and those who are at risk.
“Even if we have that evidence, we need to get it from our own environment
“The new strain was found among young people but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the picture will be like that in our own environment. That is why we have to answer our own questions,” he explained.
The researcher added, “We also need to understand that younger people and children are the ones who go around more. They also have the tendency to be careless.
“However, the information we have now from the evidence we have is scanty to draw conclusion.”
Another medical practitioner with the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control who spoke with PUNCH HealthWise on condition of anonymity corroborated the views of his colleague at NIMR, saying, “We are still studying the new strain and cannot conclude yet whether children will be easily infected.
“Once we are done with our findings about the new strain, we will make it open.”
The Director General of NCDC, Dr.Chikwe Ihekweazu, had, in a tweet on Sunday, said, “While we study data in Nigeria and await additional guidance from WHO on new strains causing COVID-19, travelers must implement travel protocol.”
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