GENEVA: The coronavirus mutation first found in Britain has now spread to 50 territories, according to the World Health Organisation, while a similar South African-identified strain has now been found in 20.
The UN body also noted a third new coronavirus "variant of concern" found in Japan may impact upon immune response and needs further investigation. "The more the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change. High levels of transmission mean that we should expect more variants to emerge," said the WHO.
SARS-CoV-2 is the virus which causes Covid-19 disease. Since first being reported to the WHO on December 14, the British-identified variant VOC 202012/01 has been found in 50 countries, territories and areas, the agency said.
Test results showed the age and sex distribution was similar to that of other circulating variants, while contact tracing data revealed "higher transmissibility (secondary attack rates) where the index case has the variant strain".
The South African-identified variant 501Y.V2, first reported on December 18, has now been detected in 20 countries, territories and areas. "From preliminary and ongoing investigations in South Africa, it is possible that the 501Y.V2 variant is more transmissible than variants circulating in South Africa previously," the WHO weekly report said.
"Moreover, while this new variant does not appear to cause more severe illness, the observed rapid increases in case numbers has placed health systems under pressure." The geographical spread of both variants is likely underestimated, said the WHO, given a bias towards detection in countries with virus sequencing capacity.
Meanwhile the agency said it had been notified by Japan on January 9 of a new variant detected in four travellers arriving from Brazil. The variant was found in two adults and two children. "This variant has 12 mutations to the spike protein, including three mutations of concern in common with VOC 202012/01 and 501Y.V2" it said, "which may impact transmissibility and host immune response".
The WHO said researchers in Brazil had additionally reported the emergence of a similar variant, which had likely evolved independently of the variant detected in Japan. "The extent and public health significance of these new variants require further investigation," the report said.
The WHO held a meeting of 1,750 international scientists on Tuesday to discuss critical knowledge gaps and research priorities for emerging variants. "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, the WHO’s research and development chief.
The WHO said the new variants showed the importance of increasing diagnostic capacity and systematic sequencing of the virus. "Research is ongoing to determine the impact of new variants on transmission, disease severity as well as any potential impacts on vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics," the organisation said.Meanwhile, the United States has endured its worst day of the pandemic, with three Americans dying every minute, as China took decisive steps on Wednesday to stamp out a tiny coronavirus outbreak.
Global infections have soared past 91 million, and the spikes have forced governments around the world to reimpose restrictions such as unpopular and economically painful lockdowns, including in Europe which is battling a devastating second wave.
The United States is the worst-hit nation, logging a record 4,470 deaths in 24 hours on Tuesday, as it reeled from a winter surge in infections that has overwhelmed hospitals and clinics in many areas even as vaccines are rolled out.
"It’s most definitely the darkest period of my entire career," said Kari McGuire, a palliative care supervisor at the St Mary hospital in Apple Valley, a small rural town in California."I’ve personally had to watch people that I know, that I care for, watch their loved ones die.
It’s been very difficult."Coronavirus patients at the overstretched hospital were crammed into hallways, makeshift ICU beds and even the pediatric ward.McGuire said there were "astronomical numbers" of Covid-19 deaths -- the United States accounts for a fifth of the world’s almost two million coronavirus fatalities.
Authorities on Tuesday announced that starting January 26, all travelers entering the United States by air will need a negative Covid-19 test before departure.Neighbouring Canada also scrambled to contain a worrying outbreak, ordering residents in Ontario -- its economic engine and most populous province -- to stay home.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford warned that the healthcare system was "on the brink of collapse."The daily US death toll on Tuesday was nearly as high as the official fatality count for the entire pandemic in China, where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019.
China largely eliminated its outbreak through a number of strict lockdowns and extensive testing and tracing, but recent weeks have seen a smattering of cases. That has forced more than 20 million people under some form of lockdown in the country’s northern regions.The government of northeastern Heilongjiang province -- home to 37.5 million people -- declared an "emergency state" on Wednesday after 28 cases were found, telling residents not to leave the province unless necessary.
China is rushing to inoculate millions using homegrown vaccines ahead of the Lunar New Year travel rush, which authorities fear could boost the risk of transmission.Japan was set to expand a coronavirus state of emergency on Wednesday beyond greater Tokyo to seven more regions to counter a surge in cases.While Japan’s outbreak remains comparatively small, with around 4,100 deaths overall, medics say hospitals are under heavy strain from the spikes in the worst-affected areas.
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