World Health Organization WHO urges global community to step up efforts to control and monitor the new COVID-19 variants. Efforts should be stepped up to quickly identify and study emerging variants of the COVID-19-causing SARS-CoV-2 virus, UN World Health Organization (WHO) scientists said on Tuesday.
Monitoring, virus and serum samples should be shared via globally agreed mechanisms. Critical research can be promptly initiated each time, according to the agency. “Our collective goal is to get ahead of the game and have a global mechanism to quickly identify and study variants of concern and understand their implications for disease control efforts,” said Ana Maria Henao Restrepo, Head of WHO’s R&D Blueprint. She was speaking at a virtual meeting of scientists from around the globe. UN health agency host the event with over 1,750 experts from 124 countries.
Participants noted the importance of research to detect and understand early on the potential impact of emerging variants on diagnostics, treatments and vaccines. They highlighted the importance of integrating new SARS-CoV-2 variants research into the global research and innovation agenda, according to WHO.
Normal for viruses to mutate
It is normal for viruses to mutate. The more the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change. WHO due to high levels of transmission expects emergence of more variants. Significant variants reported so far have close connection with increases in transmissibility but not disease severity. Research is ongoing to address whether the changes impact public health tools and measures.
“So far an astounding 350,000 sequences have been publicly shared, but most come from just a handful of countries. Improving the geographic coverage of sequencing is critical for the world to have eyes and ears on changes to the virus,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead on COVID-19.
New variants of the coronavirus are in the UK, South Africa and Japan. This variant appears to be more transmissible, although health officials have said that there is no evidence it is more deadly, or that it would not respond in the same way to the vaccines cleared for emergency use.
Information sharing critical for new COVID-19 variants
Genomic sequencing has been critical in identifying and responding to new variants. Also increasing sequencing capacity across the world is a priority research area for WHO. Better surveillance and laboratory capacity to monitor strains of concern needs prompt sharing of virus and serum samples via globally agreed mechanisms. Critical research can be promptly initiated each time, the agency added.
South Africa coronavirus variant
A new variant of coronavirus circulating in South Africa is already in other countries, including the UK. With the recent emergence in the African region of new COVID-19 variants which seem to have higher transmissibility, the World Health Organization (WHO) calls on countries to boost genomic surveillance and analysis through the African genome sequencing laboratory network to detect any new mutations and strengthen the efforts to curb the pandemic.
These tiny genetic changes happen as the virus makes new copies of itself to spread and thrive. Most are inconsequential, and a few can even be harmful to the virus’s survival, but some can make it more infectious or threatening to the host – humans. There are now many thousands of different versions, or variants, of the pandemic virus circulating. But experts’ concerns focus on a small number of these. The South African variant is the 501.V2.
South Africa recently detected a new SARS-CoV-2 variant. This appears to transmit more easily and has the link to the ongoing surge of COVID-19 infections in the country. Further analysis is underway to determine the full epidemiological significance of this mutation. Nigeria is also carrying out more investigations on a variant identified in samples collected in August and October.
New COVID-19 variants with higher speed of transmission
“The emergence of new COVID-19 variants is common. However, those with higher speed of transmission or potentially increased pathogenicity are very concerning. Crucial investigations are underway to comprehensively understand the behaviour of the new mutant virus and steer response accordingly,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
In September 2020, WHO and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention launched network of 12 laboratories in Africa to reinforce genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2. As of 23 December, 4948 sequences were in the region, representing just 2% of the 295 101 worldwide sequences.
The new variants have emerged as COVID-19 infections are on the rise in the 47 countries in the WHO African region, nearly reaching the peak seen in July. In the past 28 days, Algeria, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Uganda have reported the highest number of new cases, accounting for 90% of all the infections in the region.