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WHO alerts on new coronavirus variants, recommends measures to stem spread

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said the SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes coronavirus (COVID-19), had a major impact on human health globally, infecting a large number of people, according to an official statement issued on Thursday, December 31, 2020.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Photo credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

The pandemic “caused severe disease and associated long-term health sequelae, resulting in death and excess mortality, especially among older and vulnerable populations”, WHO said.

It also interrupted routine healthcare services; causing disruptions to travel, trade, education and many other societal functions; and more broadly having a negative impact on people’s physical and mental health.

WHO noted that “previous reports of the D614G mutation and the recent reports of virus variants from the Kingdom of Denmark, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Republic of South Africa have raised interest and concern in the impact of viral changes”.

“As of December 30, the 501Y.V2 variant from South Africa has been reported from four other countries to date.

“The authorities in the affected countries are conducting epidemiological and virological investigations to further assess the transmissibility, severity, risk of re-infection and antibody response to new variants.”

The statement listed activities initiated by national authorities that had reported virus variants adding that “they are undertaking intensified sampling to understand how widely these new variants are circulating”.

“Researchers and government authorities are working with WHO and collaborating with members of the WHO SARS-CoV-2 virus evolution working group to assess epidemiologic, modelling, phylogenetic and laboratory findings as results become available.”

WHO noted that all viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, change over time, most without a direct benefit to the virus in terms of increasing its infectiousness or transmissibility.

It said the potential for virus mutation increases with the frequency of human and animal infections. Therefore, reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2 by using established disease control methods as well as avoiding introductions to animal populations, are critical aspects to the global strategy to reduce the occurrence of mutations that have negative public health implications.

It urged national and local authorities to continue to strengthen existing disease control activities, including monitoring, epidemiological surveillance and strategic testing; outbreak investigation and contact tracing; and where appropriate, adjusting public health and social measures to reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

“Where limited sequencing capacity exists, countries are encouraged to increase capacity in collaboration with public, academic and private sequencing laboratories, and may arrange sequencing at collaborating laboratories in the COVID-19 reference laboratory network.

While mutations of SARS-CoV-2 are expected, it is important to continue to monitor the public health implications of new virus variants.

WHO recommends that all countries take a risk-based approach for adjusting measures in the context of international travel.

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