A highly infectious mutation of the novel coronavirus first recorded in the UK last month has spread to dozens of countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Since being reported to the WHO on December 14, the UK-identified variant VOC 202012/01 has been found in 50 countries, territories and regions, the UN body said in its weekly report. on the pandemic, released Tuesday.
The test results showed that the age and sex distribution of the variant identified in the UK was similar to that of the other variants in circulation.
Meanwhile, a similar strain identified in South Africa, 501Y.V2, has been found in 20 countries, territories and regions after it was first reported to the WHO on December 18, according to the WHO.
“Based on preliminary and ongoing investigations in South Africa, the 501Y.V2 variant may be more transmissible than variants circulating in South Africa previously,” the agency’s weekly report said.
“Moreover, although this new variant does not appear to cause more serious illness, the rapid increase in the number of cases has put health systems under pressure.”
The geographic distribution of the two variants is likely underestimated, the WHO said.
Fears over the increased transmissibility of the new variants are leading to new lockdowns and additional measures to contain COVID-19.
The strains share a common mutation, which scientists call N501Y. This is a slight alteration in one part of the spike protein that covers the virus. It is believed that this change is the reason why these strains can spread so easily.
Most of the vaccines used around the world train the body to recognize and fight this spike protein.
British scientists said the variant found in the UK – which has become the dominant type in parts of England – still appears to be susceptible to vaccines.
The South African strain is of more concern, however, due to an additional mutation that has scientists at the forefront, one called E484K, which can make some vaccines less effective.
The WHO also noted on Tuesday that a third new variant of the “worrying” coronavirus, found in Japan, requires further investigation.
The agency said it was informed by Japan on January 9 of the new variant detected in four travelers from Brazil. The variant has been found in two adults and two children.
WHO hosted 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 curve and have a global mechanism to quickly identify and investigate variants of concern and understand their implications for disease control efforts,” said Ana Maria Henao Restrepo, Chief WHO research and development.
The WHO said the new variants show the importance of increasing the diagnostic capacity and systematic sequencing of the virus.
“Research is underway to determine the impact of the new variants on transmission, the severity of the disease as well as any potential impact on vaccines, treatments and diagnostics,” the organization said.
“The more the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to change. High transmission levels mean we should expect more variants to emerge, ”he added.
SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19 disease. Viruses constantly undergo minor changes as they spread from person to person.
More than 90 million COVID-19 infections have been recorded worldwide since the emergence of cases at the end of last year. The toll of the pandemic is close to two million people.