BELIZE CITY, Wed. July 14, 2021– A mutated form of the COVID-19 virus that was found in some samples which were tested in Belize and that was feared to be the Delta variant, was identified as the less threatening Epsilon variant by Baylor College in Texas.
The announcement that the virus had been identified was made by the Ministry of Health and Wellness this week, and the news was a source of great relief for many Belizeans, who were concerned that the reportedly more deadly and transmissible Delta variant was already in our midst. The Epsilon variant, which first originated in Southern California, has apparently been in the country since March, according to data from the Central Medical Laboratory.
Dr. Natalia Largaespada Beer from the Ministry of Health and Wellness and Dr. Gerhaldine Morazan from the Central Medical Laboratory granted the media a Zoom interview on Tuesday to provide the public with an update on the new variant found in the country.
According to Dr. Beer, the Epsilon strain is a variant of interest, rather than a variant of concern. This is an important distinction, since this means that the variant does not pose a significantly greater threat to human life than the original form of the COVID-19 virus, as is the case with the Delta variant, which is a variant of concern.
“You have variants of concerns and variants of interest, and it’s like the traffic lights system. Where the variant of concern would be like red and the variant of interest is yellow, and then mutations that cause no negative effect on the transmissibility or the clinical presentation of the disease, then we can classify those as changes but being green. So Epsilon went from red to yellow, red meaning that last year countries were reporting Epsilon related to an increase in the number of cases, but since June 2021 Epsilon is no longer being reported in samples that have been studied from the different countries,” Dr. Beer said.
She said that the current variants of concern listed by the World Health Organization (WHO) are Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta. As previously reported, due to an apparent uptick in cases, doctors in Belize initially thought that it was the Delta variant that had been found in the country.
Dr. Morazan from the Central Medical Lab explained, “As we have seen, how the virus spreading and how rapidly it’s popping up, more peaks in areas and is more transmissible, that gives us enough information to say that it is a variant and the Delta one, because the Delta is more rapidly spread and infectious. But we are not seeing a lot of patients being hospitalized or critically hospitalized; there are so many things that we need to consider.”
She informed the media that the Central Medical Lab is working with the Ministry of Health and Wellness, the US CDC (Center for Disease Control), and Baylor College to acquire equipment to carry out gene sequencing testing by the end of this year. This will give the country the capacity to identify specific variants locally. Dr. Morazan said that at this time the lab does a secondary test of all positive cases to determine whether any are the result of known variants.
She also noted that variants of interest typically have a good response to vaccines.
“We are lucky the variant of interest, they have good response to the, with the vaccine. Our body produces enough antibodies, and they are able to fight infecting with the variant of interest,” Dr. Morazan said.