Five foreigners who flew in from India on Thursday and travelled to Kisumu have tested positive for Covid-19, raising fears of a possible spread of the highly infectious Indian mutant of the deadly virus.
Acting Health Director-General Patrick Amoth said yesterday that government officials are tracing contacts of the Indians, who are now isolated.
The five, said to have been working in a Kisumu fertiliser plant, are being investigated to establish if they carry the double mutant B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus.
"They came into the country before we imposed a ban on travel to and from India," Dr Amoth said.
The mutations (E484Q and L452R), similar to the one found in the South African variant - the B.1.351 (501Y.V2 - are believed to be driving the deadly wave of the pandemic in India.
"As a standard measure and because we knew what was happening in India, we screened them. They tested positive for Covid-19. We went ahead to do genomic sequencing because we knew their origin. Results are expected in a week," he said, adding, the five are in a protected camp.
More than 226,000 people have died of Covid-19 out of 20.6 million reported infections in India.
Ban on travellers
Kenya reported 489 new infections yesterday from a sample of 4,426, indicating an 11 per cent positive rate. An estimated 2,825 Kenyans have died from the viral infection.
The Ministry of Health will be hard put to explain why it allowed passengers from India to travel freely across the country without first being quarantined.
When the United Kingdom imposed a ban on travellers from Kenya early last month, the government retaliated, insisting that anyone from that country would also be quarantined.
Such a requirement was not imposed on passengers from India, even with the knowledge that an even more deadly mutant was sweeping across the Asian country.
Kisumu County Health Chief Officer Boaz Otieno said that at least 100 workers at the plant, who came into contact with the five, have been quarantined and contact-tracing is ongoing.
Eighteen people from three planes that landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) from India on Saturday turned positive for coronavirus. They are in quarantine, Dr Amoth said yesterday.
Kenya banned flights to and from India on Thursday, following a drastic surge in coronavirus cases and deaths in the country.
It emerged at yesterday's press briefing that Indian variants have been circulating in the country for a while.
Out of the 1,277 samples picked and analysed between March 2020 and April 8, 2021, some 31 per cent were variants of interest.
"Of these, some 71 per cent were UK variants," the Health director said.
Other variants of interest picked during surveillance are UK's B.1.1.7 and South Africa's B.1.351.
"There's nothing to hide. These variant has been found in Kenya. Because of global connectivity, you can't put barriers to prevent a virus from accessing your territory. It's just a question of time," Dr Amoth said.
The Indian variant was also picked in Uganda last week.
With a porous border between the two countries, cases are suspected to be spreading into Kenya too.
"There's no barrier between us and Uganda. The variants will definitely go anywhere because you can't put a wall and stop them from moving," Dr Amoth added.
Mandatory antigen testing
To control the spread of the deadly variant, Health ministry has imposed a mandatory antigen testing for Covid-19 at JKIA upon arrival of passengers.
"We're doing it at the expense of the government. We have also applied to the National Treasury to give us authority to open an account so that we can charge the cost of testing to the client like it is happening in other countries," Dr Amoth said.
"We're going to focus on positive people who are likely to be the minority. But, people should know that before you enter Kenya, you must have proof of a negative PCR test."
The government has, however, been called out for dilly-dallying and failing to ban Indian flights in time.
"I think the cessation of flights to India came rather too late. What the government needs to do is to be vigilant in tracing those who recently arrived from India and also up genomic surveillance to detect these variants among positive cases in returning travellers or their contacts," said Dr Ahmed Kalebi, a consultant pathologist and the President of the International Academy of pathology in East Africa.
Dr Amoth said that although Covid-19 cases have gone down in Kenya, the government is taking the opportunity to revamp the capacity to handle a surge.
"We have seen what has been happening in India. It's a wake-up call. The cases have been going down and we want to use this opportunity to work with counties to revamp our capacity in terms of oxygen supply," Dr Amoth added.
He added that Health ministry had received support from the World Bank to support 16 counties revamp oxygen supply, the Health director-general told journalists. He added that there's increased surveillance at the JKIA and all ports of entry.
The ministry was allocated Sh7 billion in the 2021/22 financial year budget to buy additional stocks of the Pfizer and the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines.
"Whichever vaccine will come earlier, we will deploy. But we hope that the AstraZeneca will be the one because it is easier for us since we already have that platform," Dr Amoth said.
"Research is ongoing on the possibility of mixing the vaccines and you will be informed of the results soon."
A total of 900,459 people had been vaccinated in Kenya as of Tuesday, Health Chief Administrative Secretary Rashid Aman said.