Travellers to Jamaica are being implored to adhere to quarantine measures to reduce the spread of new variants of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
The urging comes as the Ministry of Health and Wellness has confirmed cases of the Mu variant of COVID-19 on the island.
Addressing a virtual press conference on Thursday (Sept. 9), Portfolio Minister, Dr. the Hon. Christopher Tufton said that 26 of the 96 samples tested have returned positive results for the new strain.
The World Health Organization (WHO), on August 30, listed Mu as a Variant of Interest (VOI), after it was first identified in Columbia.
The new strain is the fifth VOI since March 2020 and has since been confirmed in at least 39 countries, including St. Vincent and Grenadines regionally, where five cases were confirmed between July 19 and August 9.
Although the Mu variant makes up less than 0.1 per cent of COVID-19 cases globally, its prevalence in South America is rising, and currently makes up 39 per cent of cases in Colombia and 13 per cent in Ecuador.
Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jacquiline Bisasor-McKenzie, said that the VOI designation implies that the variant has genetic differences compared to other known variants, causing infections in multiple countries and might present a threat to public health.
She pointed out that while all viruses evolve over time and most changes have little to no impact on the virus properties, “some changes to the SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID) lead to variants that may affect virus transmissibility, disease severity, and the efficacy of vaccines”.
“It is of concern because [it has the potential to] evade the body’s attempts to destroy the virus and to produce antibodies. Mu has mutations that might confirm some of these properties, but it is still being investigated,” she noted.
“This is also the reason why we will continue to have some travel restrictions on some countries. So, it is even more important for travellers to understand why it is that we impose quarantine measures. They need to stay at home to decrease the risk of exposure and be tested appropriately so that we can pick up if there is an infection,” she stressed.
Dr. Bisasor-McKenzie, said that the Ministry will be monitoring the evolution of the Mu variant, even as it focuses on the Delta variant, which continues to be the predominant strain present in the island and is designed as a Variant of Concern (VOC) by the WHO.
“A VOC (means) that the mutations have occurred, and they are causing increased transmissibility. They have the potential to cause some change in the clinical disease presentation and they are doing that,” she pointed out.
Meanwhile, Dr. Tufton urged Jamaicans not to panic because of the presence of the new variant.
He said that the Mu strain will be manageable once the established public health protocols are followed.
“This new strain is not going to lead to more people dying or getting ill. We are still studying it, and while we have an obligation to announce, we are not announcing for you to panic…it is for you to be aware; it is not a failure of the system or the process,” he pointed out.