It has been just over one year since T&T confirmed its first COVID-19 variant of concern, the B117 or Alpha variant which was first detected in the United Kingdom in September 2020.
T&T’s first Alpha patient was a national who returned from the United Kingdom and was quarantined on arrival as part of the country’s quarantine procedures then. Alpha didn’t change the course of the pandemic locally as all cases were imported or primary contacts of a previous Alpha COVID-19 case. To date, the country has reported nine cases of the Alpha variant.
However, as 2021 wore on, the nation faced much more infectious, transmissible, and at times, severe strains of COVID-19. So how do these strains and variants come about? According to Associate Professor of Biotechnology and Genetics at the University of T&T (UTT) Dr Nicole Ramlachan, this is the natural course of a virus. She explained that a virus’ purpose is to replicate more and more as it is a non-living particle and replies on its host to spread. In the case of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, these replications are where pandemic-altering consequences occur.
“As your DNA and RNA replicate, even in humans, we accumulate mistakes. Mistakes are mutations. Genetically, it could be a missense mutation, a nonsense mutation, a deleterious mutation, or it could be an advantageous mutation that actually allows that virus to do something it didn’t to be able to maximize replication.”
Scientists track mutations as they are passed through a lineage, a branch of the coronavirus family tree. A group of coronaviruses that share the same inherited set of distinctive mutations is called a variant. As of January 2022, there are five COVID-19 variants of concern labelled by the World Health Organization (WHO) as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and most recently, Omicron. There have been other variants of interest to the WHO like Kappa, Mu, and Lambda, which share concerning mutations but did not spread as rapidly as the variants of concern.
Though genetic sequencing data submitted by the Caribbean Public Health Agency and The University of the West Indies show Gamma was detected before April 2021, community spread of the variant kicked off the nation’s second wave of the pandemic. Quickly following by August through October was the rise of Delta across T&T, which brought unprecedented levels of COVID-19 fatalities by the end of last year.
By the end of 2021, though, a new variant began rapidly spreading globally—Omicron. T&T recorded its first imported case within a month of Omicron’s discovery. However, sequencing data suggests Omicron may have already been within the community, spreading in tandem with Delta but slowly becoming the dominant variant.
Yesterday, Technical Director, Epidemiology at the Ministry of Health, Dr Avery Hinds, said T&T is now experiencing “chains of community transmission” or community spread of the Omicron variant. Reports and studies globally suggest that this new variant, while the most transmissible variant to date, may be milder. However, Dr Ramlachan says we should take this as a reason to get COVID-19 over with, as people who intentionally became infected have succumbed to the disease recently.
Citing Omicron’s virulence, she explained that people think Omicron “can end the pandemic because everyone gets Omicron and it is just going to be like a cold, and the virus will just go off into the sunset and never really bother anyone ever again. That’s now how it works, unfortunately.”
Dr Ramlachan warned: “Whether it is Omicron, it’s Delta, its Gamma, you can’t 100 per cent put your head on a block and take that risk and say I will deliberately get infected because I know I’ll be okay. You could luck out and be okay, but on the other hand, you just don’t know.”
As cases continue to rise at the highest rate we’ve seen for the pandemic, likely as both Delta and Omicron spread in the community, there are tried and tested means of preventing infection and perhaps, generating another variant—wear your mask, wash your hands and watch your distance.