Health Min. now seeking to send more ‘COVID’ samples to test for variants
By Vishani Ragobeer
Four months after Guyana sent its first and only set of positive COVID-19 samples to the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA) to test for the presence of new variants, Guyana is now trying to send more samples to the agency.
On Monday, at the sidelines of an event, Health Minister, Dr. Frank Anthony, related that the local health authorities still do not have laboratory evidence to confirm whether a variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is present in Guyana.
Recently, however, Advisor on emerging viral diseases at the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), Dr. Jairo Mendez-Rico, indicated that the P.1 variant of the virus, that originated in Brazil, is present in Guyana.
Following this indication from Dr. Mendez-Rico, Dr. Anthony said that the local authorities engaged PAHO to find out how they were able to ascertain that a variant is in Guyana even though the local authorities do not have confirmation on this.
“We flagged that with them and that’s where it is really,” Dr Anthony said when asked about that engagement. It is still unclear how PAHO was able to confirm the presence of the P.1 variant.
The Health Minister, however, said that efforts would be made to send more samples to the Trinidad-based CARPHA since that agency has partnered with the University of the West Indies (UWI)- St. Augustine campus, to engage in genomic sequencing. This sequencing is a type of genetic analysis that allows scientists to identify the presence of variants.
In December 2020, CARPHA and the UWI began this sequencing project and countries were encouraged to send 10 COVID-19 samples to CARPHA each month so that the researchers from the UWI would be able to determine whether variants of the virus are in the countries.
In January, the local authorities sent 10 positive COVID-19 samples to CARPHA as there was much concern, locally, about the presence of the B.1.1.7 variant. This variant was the first variant of the coronavirus that emerged in the United Kingdom (UK), late last year. Subsequently, it was found that those samples were not any of the variants of the virus.
But, those ten samples were the only COVID positive samples ever sent for genomic sequencing. Currently, Guyana has recorded more than 16,000 cases of COVID-19.
In March, Dr. Anthony revealed that CARPHA indicated it has suspended the genomic sequencing project to test for COVID-19 variants. He did not state when this suspension took effect or why this suspension was effected.
On Monday, when clarity was sought, he related that the suspension was communicated to the office of the Chief Medical Officer (CMO). He could not state whether CARPHA informed the local health authorities that sequencing to test for the variants resumed.
The News Room reached out to CARPHA via email for clarity on this suspension and in response, three press releases from March and April were sent. There was no response to the question of when testing was suspended, but press releases from March and April indicated that variant testing was ongoing.
When asked why Guyana has not sent additional samples to CARPHA since testing resumed, the Health Minister only assured members of the media that the body would be engaged and that more samples would be sent.
Importantly, he did not rule out the presence of variants in Guyana since, according to him, the Health Ministry has observed epidemiological changes in the disease, including the severity of the disease and how it has affected different groups of people.
“Perhaps there are variants that are circulating but we don’t have that laboratory evidence and the only way you can confirm that is when you do the sequencing,” the Health Minister told the press.