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Lebanon: Dangerous COVID Mutations, With No Response From the Ministry

Nada Mohamad
Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Oxford University
February 11, 2021
While the government has opted for gradually lifting the lockdown, research shows that several Covid-19 variants have become commonplace, including the British mutant which spreads 50% more rapidly than others.

Lebanon is moving toward announcing, officially or unofficially, that more common variants of Covid-19 have proven dominance over all infections in Lebanon. A study carried out by the Covid-19 laboratory at the Faculty of Sciences of the Lebanese University (LU), in collaboration with the University of Oxford, confirmed the presence of mutants in Lebanon, headed by the British one, in addition to mutants that could be called “Lebanese.”

The world raised the alarm when a new fast-spreading UK virus variant named B.1.1.7 came to the attention of researchers. South Africa soon followed in the detection of the B.1.351 mutant, which was different from the British variant in terms of mutations, but similar in terms of speed of spread.

The new data prompted Britain to announce a general lockdown in the country to remedy the “calamity,” as the presence of a rapidly spreading mutant and infection means a rapid increase in the number of injuries, which will first be reflected in greater pressure on the already overworked health sector, as well as in an increase in moderate and serious cases, and thus the number of deaths. Not to mention that these new mutants may be more dangerous, as indicated by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, despite a lack of sufficient scientific evidence so far to confirm such a statement.

The Ministry of Health Fails to Fulfill its Responsibilities

Likewise, on “planet Lebanon” strange results were observed in PCR tests, which raised doubts in the concerned laboratories, including the Covid-19 test lab at the LU. This prompted Fadi Abdel Sater, head of the laboratory, to notify the Ministry of Health, which should then notify the World Health Organization (WHO), as data on the development and spread of the virus are of global interest.

It is also the ministry’s job to expedite the analysis of the virus’ genetic makeup from the samples in question, in order to confirm suspicions, as the development of the virus affects people’s health

The results also revealed a second variant of Covid-19, B.1.258, which had been previously detected in other European countries, and which contains mutations that are likely to have an effect on the virus’ ability to evade the immune system.

Cries for help, however, did not receive a quick response from the health ministry to ward off the consequences of the emerging danger, which prompted Lebanese scientists to take matters into their own hands and determine the essence of the new variants of Covid-19 circulating in the country.

Abdel Sater tried to uncover the details of the new mutants in circulation. However, analyzing the virus’ genetic makeup through sequencing to confirm what he suspected proved impossible due to lack of means.

This prompted me, as a researcher at the University of Oxford, to take the initiative and play the role of intermediary between Abdel Sater and the scientists of the Executive Agency of the Department of Health and Social Care in the United Kingdom in order to collaborate and determine the essence of the new Covid-19 mutations in Lebanon.

The Lebanese samples were sent to the UK, where the genetic makeup of the virus was analyzed and the results confirmed with unquestionable scientific evidence. Lebanon’s Ministry of Health was absent and did not see the need for rapid action, even though the results could affect our lives. What if these mutants were more dangerous and deadly? Have we thought about that?

New Variants Taking over Lebanon

The results of the analysis of 9 samples sent by Abdel Sater by Public Health England (PHE) revealed that 8 of these samples belong to the British mutant B.1.1.7, which is a mutant spreading 50% more rapidly than other known mutants. This, according to Abdel Sater, now constitutes more than 95% of daily PCR test rates in Lebanon.

The results also revealed a second variant of Covid-19, B.1.258, which had been previously detected in other European countries, and which contains mutations that are likely to have an effect on the virus’ ability to evade the immune system. So far, there is no evidence of the presence of the South African variant in Lebanon. However, the possibility cannot be excluded.It is likely that there are other mutations still slipping silently through the Lebanese. Analysis of the virus’s genetic makeup in samples covering a larger segment of people could reveal other mutations. Could we witness the presence of a “Lebanese variant” of the virus?

Early Vaccination Is a Duty and a Necessity

It is well known that the longer the virus circulates and spreads in a community, and the longer the period of infection, the greater the chance of it developing and mutating. How would the situation be in light of the rapid spread of more than one variant?

There are two basic factors to limit the spread of an epidemic in society: preventive measures and vaccination. Especially at this stage, with no collective commitment to necessary precautions like social distancing and wearing a mask, vaccinating has become an obligation.

However, vaccinating a limited proportion of society is not sufficient to stop the virus. Rather, in addition to preventive measures, vaccination operations that cover the largest proportion of society are required to reach collective protection, contain the epidemic, and emerge from the tunnel into the light.

In addition to preventive measures, vaccination operations that cover the largest proportion of society are required to reach collective protection, contain the epidemic, and emerge from the tunnel into the light. 

This is why countries in which these mutants have spread, such as the UK, have begun the process of community vaccination with a general lockdown, to avoid exacerbating the crisis as much as possible.

In addition, there is a concern about the effectiveness of existing vaccines, with the possibility of the virus developing in terms of acquiring the ability to evade the immune system, which makes it imperative to accelerate the vaccination process.

However, the inability to produce sufficient quantities of Covid-19 vaccines to cover the vaccination of billions of people around the world, as well as the rush of rich and developed countries to reserve large numbers of doses for their residents at the expense of developing or poor countries, are complicating the situation even more.

Two Million Vaccines

According to Minister of Health Hamad Hassan, about two million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine have already been reserved through a contract with the Lebanese government. These doses will arrive in batches, hopefully, starting in late February. Add to that Lebanon’s contract with COVAX, which is set to secure two million additional doses, for which no arrival date has been determined yet. It is necessary to start the community vaccination process as soon as possible, starting with the groups most at risk of infection and complications, especially with the proven circulation of new mutants in the community, to stop the situation from getting worse and the virus developing further.

Talking about the arrival of the first batches of only a few thousand doses of vaccine, without specifying subsequent arrival dates is worrying, as this will cover only a small number of the society at best. We are now facing a scenario in which we are betting on our lives, especially with the current decisions of the Lebanese government to gradually reopen the country. Where are we going? Who bears the responsibility in the absence of a “clear horizon”?

Two persons did what was supposed to be the government’s duty. Of course, it was expected that they would deal with the results and take action after Abdel Sater had briefed them about this urgent matter, which included alerting the public, but they still have not lifted a finger.

Instead, they decided to procrastinate under the pretext of referring the matter to a “scientific committee.” Of course, the results of the study are beyond doubt as they are issued by an official body affiliated with the PHE, whose research was behind the discovery of the British mutant in the first place.

The Lebanese government, which is supposed to be proud of the research done by scientists from its national university, should support it, and support them. Instead as always, they’ve disappointed us, and did not care.

This article was translated from Arabic to English by Rita Khadra.

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