NEW YORK: The UN health agency has urged all countries to adopt a risk-based and scientific approach to travel bans linked to a new COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa and Botswana.
The development on Friday came as a World Health Organization (WHO) panel prepared to meet to assess the potential impact of a new coronavirus variant identified as B 1.1.529.
According to WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the information is still limited. “There are fewer than 100 whole genome sequences that are available, we don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves”, she said during a Q&A on Twitter.
Dr. Van Kerkhove explained that researchers are currently trying to determine where the mutations are and what they potentially mean for diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has, there’s a lot of work that is underway. It’s a variant that’s under monitoring. The (WHO) technical advisory group will discuss if it will become a variant of interest or a variant of concern and if that’s the case, we will give it a Greek name, but it is something to watch”, she added.
The expert thanked researchers from South Africa and Botswana for openly sharing information to the UN health agency.
“Everyone out there: do not discriminate against countries that share their findings openly”, she urged, as countries such as Britain, France and Israel have moved to cancel direct flights from South Africa and surrounding nations.
According to South African health authorities so far, fewer than 100 cases of the new variant have been confirmed, largely among young people who have the lowest vaccination rate in the country.
“Countries can do a lot already in terms of surveillance and sequencing and work together with the affected countries or globally and scientifically to fight this variant and understand more about it so that we know how to go about…so at this point implementing travel measures is being cautioned against”, WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told journalists in Geneva.
The WHO officials reminded previous advice: people can do a lot to protect themselves from COVID, including by continuing to wear masks and avoiding crowds. “Everybody that’s out there needs to understand that the more this virus circulates the more opportunities the virus has to change, the more mutations we will see”, said Dr. Van Kerkhove.