Cayman has sent samples overseas for testing to determine if the new UK COVID-19 variant is present, Chief Medical Officer Dr. John Lee has confirmed.

Results from those tests for the COVID-19 Variant of Concern (UK) – Variant B117 are still pending, Lee said Friday in response to queries from the Cayman Compass.

“Some samples were sent to CARPHA (Caribbean Public Health Agency) for genomic sequencing around two weeks ago but we have not had any results returned so far,” said a brief statement from Lee issued through Government Information Services.

CARPHA, which is based in Trinidad and Tobago, had assisted Cayman with verifying local PCR test results in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic last year.

At the moment, there is no way locally for Cayman to determine whether recent positive patients carry the new strain.

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“Cayman does not currently have gene sequencing technology although we are looking into this, which will have widespread applications not only in monitoring infectious disease outbreaks (including Covid-19, dengue and Zika), but also in the field of cancer management,” Lee had said in a written statement back in December.

Lee, in that statement, did indicate that if Cayman sent samples to CARPHA or elsewhere to determine the COVID variant, the turnaround for results from overseas laboratories would be “usually measured in weeks, not days, especially for specialised work such as this”.

Confirmation of Cayman’s testing comes on the heels of Trinidad and Tobago’s announcement on Thursday that it had recorded its first case of the highly infectious coronavirus variant.

The variant is detected through genome sequencing which breaks down the genetic make-up of the virus.

The US Food and Drug Administration, in its statement authorising the next-generation sequencing, explained that this “is a type of diagnostic technology that can determine, among other things, the genetic sequence of a virus. Comparing sequencing results over time can help scientists understand if and how viruses mutate.”

Concerns about the UK variant are mounting, especially in light of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement that the English variant of COVID-19 may be associated with a higher level of mortality.

However, Johnson also said evidence showed that both vaccines currently being used in the UK are effective against the new variant.

The B117 variant was first detected in September last year and has since been found in more than 50 countries, including Denmark, the US and Canada.

Data published on Friday in the UK showed that, as of Thursday, 21 Jan., 5.38 million people in Britain had been given their first dose of a vaccine.

Britain has recorded more than 3.5 million infections and nearly 96,000 deaths – the world’s fifth-highest toll.

Trinidad and Tobago’s Ministry of Health reported its first case, saying that “the presence of the variant was confirmed via a gene sequencing study at the Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of the West Indies, which has been testing COVID-19 positive samples collected since September 2020″.

Several countries, responding to the announcement of the new strain earlier this month, banned flights from the UK.

Cayman last week implemented new restrictions requiring a negative COVID-19 test prior to departure for all incoming travellers. This is in addition to testing upon arrival and a 14-day quarantine.

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