New South African Omicron variant

Although no cases of the newest COVID-19 variant Omicron have been detected in T&T, medical experts warned that it is not a matter of if it does it get here, but rather when it does. Christine Carrington, Professor of Molecular Genetics and Virology at the University of the West Indies (UWI), urged the public not to let their guard down when she spoke during the Ministry of Health’s (MOH) virtual briefing yesterday.

Carrington said the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated Omicron as the fifth variant of concern on November 26. It was first reported to the WHO by South Africa on November 24 following confirmation in samples that had been taken for testing since November 11. The first sample had been taken from a patient in Botswana on November 9 – which meant the variant had been in circulation for at least two weeks before it was even detected.

So far, cases have been confirmed in travellers entering Hong Hong, Israel and Belgium from South Africa, Malawi and Egypt via Turkey.

Carrington said Omicron is a heavily mutated strain with 32 known mutations in the spike gene which South African officials believe was responsible for a sharp rise in cases.

Noting that Omicron could be even more transmissible than the Delta variant, she said: “There is preliminary evidence that Omicron is more easily spread than other variants of concern.

“There is preliminary evidence that it is more likely to cause re-infection, suggesting that it is less sensitive to infection-induced immunity. And, it contains mutations that may cause it to be less sensitive to vaccine-induced immunity.”

Carrington said all of these findings are currently being investigated and cases are spreading in almost all provinces in South African which is very concerning. She admitted there is a knowledge gap relating to whether or not Omicron is associated with more severe disease, but assured: “There is no evidence at this point to suggest that it is more lethal and there is no reason to automatically assume that it is.”

Commenting on the global spread and evolution of the COVID-19 virus so far, Carrington appealed to citizens to continue adhering to public health regulations and wear masks, wash hands, social distance, increase or improve indoor ventilation, avoid crowded spaces and get vaccinated.

Health Minister Terrence Deyalsingh said as of midnight on November 26, travel restrictions were imposed on eight nations—Botswana, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

He repeated the call for locals to get vaccinated at any of the 109 centres where the service is available.

Deyalsingh said a vaccine can help persons achieve some semblance of normalcy which would help them in their interaction with others during the upcoming holiday period and into 2022.

“Currently, non-nationals who are unvaccinated are not allowed entry into Trinidad and Tobago. Nationals can come in from these countries but they will have to go into mandatory state-supervised quarantine for no less than 14 days at your own expense,” the minister said.

He defended the country’s traditional and parallel healthcare systems against claims that service is being compromised due to employee burn-out, Deyalsingh said lifestyle choices and individual attention to health care generally is to be blamed for the 2,000 plus deaths from the COVID-19 virus.

“The parallel healthcare system cannot take responsibility for 2,000 deaths. The deaths over the past year are a shared responsibility by all of us.

“We have been urging people from day one that the impact of your health status, especially if you are a non-communicable disease patient, is going to impact on your care,” Deyalsingh said.

The minister said T&T had a reputation for being among the countries with the highest rates for diabetes and hypertension.

“We have been pleading with the public to know your numbers, to exercise, to eat properly, so I discount the blame that is trying to be put there,” he said

Pointing to local and international figures that show the unvaccinated are the ones with the highest mortality and fatality rates, Deyalsingh said: “I can discount the ascribing of responsibility to the parallel healthcare system.”

Regarding claims that customs officers are seizing rapid antigen testing kits from arriving passengers at the airport, Chief Medical Officer Dr Roshan Parasram said individuals must have authorization from the Chemistry Food and Drug Division along with invoices and other documents.

“If those pieces of information that are required are not present, then, of course, Customs will seize that product until such a time that they can either prepare the necessary document or apply to the Food and Drug Division,” he said.

The COVID-19 update from the Ministry of Health showed that 21 more people have died and 720 people tested positive for the disease in the last 24 hours. The total number of active cases in the country is now 10,005.