Gib edges closer to full vaccination as CM offers insight into virus strain behind spike
Gibraltar is on its way to becoming “the first nation” to complete a whole nation vaccination programme, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told Parliament on Tuesday, as he urged people to continue being “cautious and vigilant” even after receiving both Covid-19 vaccines.
Mr Picardo also gave more details of the Covid-19 variants that have been detected in Gibraltar, explaining that despite early assumption, genetic sequencing had shown that the so-called Kent variant was not behind the spike in cases over Christmas.
“Although we have identified some instances of the Kent variant in Gibraltar, our third wave seems, for now, to have originated from the Spanish variant,” Mr Picardo said, referring to the strains by their common names but stressing there were no political connotations in his statement.
The Gibraltar Government has received sequencing results on 565 SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA extracts sent from 624 positive cases taken from random samples.
Of these, 357 were identified to be of the B.1.177 lineage, dubbed the Spanish variant because it was first detected in Spain, from samples sent between August 8 and January 6.
Meanwhile, of the 60 samples sent between December 27 to January 6, 15 were found to be of the B.1.1.7 lineage, which has been come to be known as the “more transmissible” Kent variant.
Mr Picardo said none of these 15 samples originated from severe or fatal cases, or from admitted or resident cases within a healthcare or residential facility, and the ages ranged from 16 to 74.
None of the samples sent were said to have been of the South African or Brazil variant of the virus, but the Gibraltar Government is still waiting for a further 300 results from samples taken during the period December to February.
“For now what we have seen is that the predominant strain in our third wave was the B.1.177 strain,” Mr Picardo said.
“In shorthand this was labelled the ‘Spanish’ strain by some sectors of the UK media back in autumn, as it was first identified in arrivals from Spain.”
“The important issue of course is that the data we have up to now suggests we were not seeing the third wave here or around us prompted, at least originally, by the more transmissible Kent variant (B.1.1.7) or any other variant of concern, based on the data we have available to us at the moment.”
“This is based on the results on a relatively small sample we have had back from PHE and there remains the possibility this may change once we get more genotyping results back.”
Mr Picardo said the Spanish variant is not associated with “any notable mutations of concern” in the spike protein and is not classified as a “variant of concern”.
He said that at present there is no data available on sequencing results to be able to communicate any findings on specific groups, such as severe or fatal cases, post vaccination cases or any clusters or outbreaks.
‘CAUTION AND VIGILENCE’
Gibraltar yesterday registered seven new Covid-19 cases in the community, bringing the total number of active cases up to 28.
In the meantime, 48,296 Covid-19 jabs have been administrated, including 29,667 who have received their first dose and 18,629 who have received their second doses.
At present although there are no patients in the Covid-19 Critical Care Unit, two of the 10 visitors who tested positive for coronavirus are currently in the Covid ward in St Bernard’s Hospital.
Of the new cases, four were a close contact of an existing, identified active case, who was a waiter in a restaurant.
Mr Picardo said four of these people had their first vaccine dose, while another had both.
“I highlight that so that people are reminded that we must remain cautious and vigilant even after vaccinations,” he said.
Two lunch ladies have also tested positive in two separate schools, resulting in a total of seven staff members and 32 children required to self-isolate.
In addition, a care professional in the ERS’ John Mackintosh Wing also tested positive for Covid-19, and two residents were exposed.
Mr Picardo said all three individuals had received both vaccines, and said “there is evidence” that people must remain vigilant even after having the vaccines.
“Please let us remind ourselves that the virus is still around us, even though we have been inoculated and that vaccination does not provide 100% immunity,” he said.
But better days are coming as Gibraltar is emerging from the pandemic.
“Finally, the sun is shining and we are all now vaccinated or on the way to being vaccinated,” Mr Picardo said.
“But we are not out of the woods yet.”
“One year on from our first restrictions, we are in a good place.”
“But we are not yet in our happy place.”
“We have a road still to travel.”
But as Gibraltar emerges out of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi, said Gibraltar will need to take a “reflective but also forward-looking attitude towards what happens next”.
He said: “Even though there has been a successful vaccination programme, that I am the first to congratulate the GHA on, and even though we appear to have navigated the worst of the public health crisis, there are now still new challenges in the developing public health situations.”
“New challenges such as getting this economy regenerated and kickstarted in an effective way.”
Mr Azopardi said that although there has been assistance given to some sectors, but this has been to “stabilise, prop up and smooth the path” for those businesses to start again.
He questioned whether there was something that was “more active” that could be done to help the economy.
Mr Azopardi also called on further “restorations of freedoms” as Covid-19 restrictions ease.
In his response, Mr Picardo said the Government has been “very active” in the areas of tourism, with new flight routes starting up soon and sporting events.
“We are trying to do many things and this is just the tip of the iceberg in order to reinvigorate the economy,” Mr Picardo said, asking the Opposition MPs to support the Government when the time comes to boost the economy in the same way as they did during the pandemic.
Mr Azopardi also highlighted the impact of isolation and the lockdown has had on mental health and wellbeing, in a “much more traumatic way” that has to be dealt with as a community.
Mr Picardo said the consequences of this is something that is “yet to be understood”, and will become a developing area for the health authorities.
One in 20 people will still catch the virus, Mr Picardo said, adding: “I am grateful for the Member of the Opposition highlighting that because it is an important point.”
“We are not rendered immune to the virus because we have had the second vaccine.”
“We are rendered much more likely to be able not to contract the virus, but it is important to keep that in mind.”
Mr Picardo reassured the house that the GHA is “very active” in monitoring all those who have contracted the virus after the second dose, adding that this is “one of the most developing areas of medicine” at the moment.
For her part, Together Gibraltar leader, Marlene Hassan Nahon, raised the issue of visits to ERS facilities.
“I have received many representations from families of loved ones in ERS,” she said.
“I get the same types of questions and concerns and complaints even, that they feel penalised because having had the vaccine they are only allowed to spend one hour with their families.”
“They explain to me that one hour sometimes isn’t enough, it is the wrong timing, their family members might be sleeping and they don’t get that stimulation in the moment that is allocated which has a domino effect on their cognitive abilities and preservation, something that has already been happening for a year.”
She said that there is a “recurring theme” of a lack of communication between Public Health and the families of loved ones and asked if there are any solutions for separate spacing to allow families more time to see their loved ones.
Mr Picardo said the rules at ERS were designed to protect the residents and understands how “frustrating”, but added that it was a question of “balance” while following Public Health guidelines.
But said that with the numbers of people that need to visit, there is the “tightest possible spacing within the context of social distance that is required” to provide as many visit slots as possible.
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