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Dec 29, 2021

COVID Cases are Back on the Rise: Is Omicron in Belize?

The Omicron variant is on everyone’s mind right now, but surprisingly, it has yet to be detected in Belize.  That’s right.  Although the number of new COVID infections, amid the third wave, is back on the rise after plunging to as low as four hundred and forty three-cases last week, Central Lab technicians have not come across it…yet.   But testing continues in order to detect different strains of the virus in country.  Earlier today, News Five visited the Central Medical Laboratory where gene sequencing is ongoing.  We found out that despite lab technicians not coming across the Omicron variant just yet, the K.H.M.H. which is just next door is taking no chances.   Isani Cayetano reports.


Isani Cayetano, Reporting

Since its initial detection in South Africa and its subsequent designation by the World Health Organization as a variant of concern, Omicron has been on every country’s watch list.  In Belize, gene sequencing is yet to identify the presence of this slightly different form of the virus that causes COVID-19.  At the Central Medical Laboratory, samples are being collected and tested to determine what strains are present across our population.


Aldo Sosa

Aldo Sosa, Acting Director of Lab Services

“The obvious step was to move on to detecting the different variants, as we noticed pretty quickly, globally, that COVID-19 was not going to be stagnant, it’s going to be dynamic and it keeps changing.  And so with the coming of the Delta variant which seemed to be quite alarming, we were supported by the Baylor College of Medicine in implementing the capacity and having the capability to detect the delta variant via gene sequencing.”


Inside the lab, a pair of technicians works in concert to test various samples and record the resulting information into a database.  With the use of modern technology, the process is fairly straightforward; nonetheless, it is a bit lengthy.


Roberto Melendez

Roberto Melendez, Scientist, Central Medical Lab

“We have the wet part of the laboratory and the dry part of the laboratory.  The wet part consists of obtaining the sample, extracting the nucleic acid of the virus, testing the virus’ nucleic material to ensure that there is viability of the virus in those samples and also, we prepare the samples for sequencing.  So that’s the wet part of the laboratory aspect of it.  Now when it comes to the dry part which basically is the computational part of it, the bio-informatics, to be specific, that’s where we obtain the analysis of the sequence.”


But the scientists at the Central Medical Lab aren’t looking solely for this newest variant of concern.  While Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization on November twenty-first, the reality is that there are several other strains, as many as fourteen, before it.


Aldo Sosa

“I wouldn’t say we have been specifically testing for Omicron.  The process is such that the gene sequence, the genetic material of the virus, and then that will yield a result of what variant it is, so to speak.  And so, from what we have, we have been detecting basically is Delta, not hundred percent but basically a hundred percent is Delta.  The others, we are seeing them diminish quite fast in fact.  It is possible that we may not be seeing them again, but when it comes to Omicron, this is something that can be picked up as well.”


Compared to previous variants of concern, Omicron is believed to be far more contagious, spreading around seventy times faster than any previous variants in the lung airways.


Aldo Sosa

“It is a concern, I would say, for everyone when it comes to how this pandemic is, I wouldn’t say transforming, but it’s going from different levels and so definitely we have been testing for it.  We, our capabilities, we had the capacity starting in October and we started testing.”


On May thirty-first, the WHO named the Delta variant.  One month later, it indicated that the variant was quickly becoming the dominant strain globally.  In Belize, its presence is overwhelming.


Roberto Melendez

“So far, it’s Delta that is predominantly the main variant in the country.  Currently we are sequencing current samples in December, so hopefully we can pick up any variant of concern. Sequencing is a lengthy procedure, but there is a final outcome within two weeks, I would say, roughly, because of the procedures that we do, preparation of the samples and the analysis part of it.”


Next door, at the Karl Heusner Memorial Hospital, the level of preparedness speaks to the presence of Omicron.


Chandra Cansino

Chandra Cansino, Chief Executive Officer, K.H.M.H.

“We’re as ready as we can possibly be.  We are operating under the premise that Omicron is here.  The research has already been done to say how quickly it spreads.  The transmissibility is ten times or more that of the Delta variant, so even if it’s a milder illness, a milder strain and it infects ten times more people, we still have to look at a surge in hospitalizations and so that is what we have been doing here at the K.H.M.H. and preparing in the event that we get another surge.”


Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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