New variant discovered in South Africa: WHO advises against travel restrictions for now

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Experts from the World Health Organization, responsible for monitoring developments in the Covid virus, are however already meeting today to determine whether the variant should be classified as “worrying” or “to be monitored”, explained Christian Lindmeier, during a regular press briefing by UN agencies.

South African scientists announced Thursday that a new variant of Covid-19 with an “extremely high” number of mutations and with a “potential for very rapid spread” had been detected in the country.

After the announcement, several countries, including the UK and Germany, announced that they would ban entry to travelers from African countries.

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Asked about these measures, Mr. Lindmeier recalled the official position of the WHO on this subject.

“WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a scientific and risk-based approach when implementing travel measures, in accordance with the temporary recommendations of the Emergency Committee (…). At this stage, once again, the implementation of travel restriction measures is discouraged, ”he said.

To facilitate public debates on variants, the WHO names the variants using the names of the letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha, beta, gamma, delta, etc.), which are more accessible to a non-scientific audience and which makes it possible to avoid stigmatizing the country where this variant was initially discovered.

The WHO has not yet given new names to the new variant, however, as its experts have not yet classified it.

“The first analyzes show that this variant presents a large number of mutations which require and will be the subject of a more in-depth study”, affirmed Christian Lindmeier.

“It will take a few weeks for us to understand the impact of this variant. Researchers are working to better understand the mutations and what they might mean in terms of transmissibility or virulence of the variant, and what the effects might be on diagnostic tools, treatments and vaccines, ”he said. .

All viruses, including SARS-CoV-2 which is responsible for Covid-19, mutate over time. Most mutations have little or no effect on the properties of the virus. However, certain mutations can affect the properties of a virus and affect, for example, how easily it spreads, the severity of the disease it causes, or the effectiveness of vaccines and drugs.

WHO has been monitoring and evaluating the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 since January 2020, in collaboration with its partners. The emergence at the end of 2020 of variants that presented an increased risk to global public health led to the characterization of variants for monitoring and variants of concern, in order to prioritize surveillance and research activities at the global level to guide the response to the pandemic.

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