Over the past decade, genetic sequencing data of several pathogens have come to play a crucial role in shaping the global response to infectious disease outbreaks such as HIV, Polio, Ebola, Zika, and now the SARS-CoV-2 resulting in the COVID-19 Pandemic. As SARS-CoV-2 continues to mutate, it creates new variants that have been associated with critical changes in the virus’s molecular stability and hence increasing or decreasing its transmissibility. The spread of these mutations poses new challenges on how these variants affect the virus’s behavior, including their impact on the effectiveness of vaccines.
To shed light on this issue further, EMPHNET held a webinar titled “Impact of COVID-19 Variants on Laboratory Tests and Vaccines Efficacy” on Tuesday, February 22, 2022. The session highlighted the viral mutations associated with COVID-19, what causes a virus to change to a new variant, and the impact of the new variants of SARS-CoV-2 on vaccine effectiveness.
The webinar was led by three public health experts namely: GHD|EMPHNET’s Disease Control and Prevention Team Leader, Dr. Tarek Al-Sanouri; Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, Georgetown University, Dr. Erin Sorrell; and Chief of Public Health Laboratories Division, National Institute of Health (NIH), Pakistan, Dr. Muhammad Salman. In addition, the session was facilitated by Public Health Expert, Associate Professor, Baghdad University, Iraq, Dr. Faris Lami.
Dr. Lami started the webinar by highlighting the importance of the webinar’s topic and he welcomed the speakers and participants. He then handed the mic to Dr. Al-Sanouri who gave a presentation titled “Viral Mutations, SARS-CoV-2 New Variants.”
Dr. Al-Sanouri started his presentation by clarifying the difference of COVID-19 pandemic introduced new terms with multiple /unstable definitions and sometimes incorrectly used such as mutations, variants, strains, and lineage. He also talked about the classification, the structure, the genome of SARS-CoV-2 and the WHO’s easy to say labels for SARS CoV-2 variants of interests and concerns.
He then shed light on the difference between the variants in terms of infection and reinfection, transmissibility, severity of infection and impacts on diagnostics. Dr. Al-Sanouri also described the changes of the virus over time as normal. He stated that the higher the number of infections in a population, the higher the likelihood of a virus mutations to occur.
The second presenter, Dr. Sorrell, spoke about vaccines’ effectiveness, impacts from new variants, vaccination equity, and second-generation vaccines. She began by stressing the importance of vaccines as the best method of preventing severe hospitalization and death from SARS-CoV-2. She then spoke about some of the challenges posed by the emergence of viral variants such as the global supply shortages as well as inadequate public health measures. Dr. Sorrell shared statistics on vaccines equity and how vaccine coverage in low-income countries dropped at 10%.
Concluding her presentation, Dr. Sorrell stated that future priorities should be focused on vaccine equity and sustaining a global supply to reach all, testing to identify new variants, and investing in research and funding for second-generation vaccines.
From his end, Dr. Salman gave a presentation titled “Confronting COVID-19 Pandemic – Pakistan’s Experience with Laboratory Detection”. In his presentation, he gave an overview of Pakistan’s experience with laboratory testing over the last two years. He also addressed some of the gaps and challenges faced during the testing process, such as the significant variation in testing capacity by province/region, equipment maintenance, and limited indigenous biotechnology capacity. He then shared some lessons learned from Pakistan’s experience in a laboratory context.
Lastly, Dr. Salman recommended reviewing and modifying the national testing strategy with clear links to epidemiological data and developing a SARS-CoV-2 sequencing strategy with specific goals.
The presentations were followed by a Q&A session facilitated by Dr. Lami in which participants were engaged in the discussion. Dr. Lami then thanked the speakers and participants and wrapped up the session.
A total of 122 participants attended the webinar, deeming it another success in the EMPHNET WEBi Series.