Coronavirus variants are “highly problematic” and could increase cases and hospitalizations if not suppressed immediately.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, they were informed over the weekend about a new Covid-19 strain discovered in Japan.
Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases (NIID) announced that the Covid variant it detected was traced from four travelers who arrived from Brazil.
The new Covid-19 strain shares some of the mutations in common with those of concern for high infectivity, the institute said, referring to the strains found in the U.K. and South Africa.
Japan’s infectious disease institute said it’s difficult to immediately determine how infectious the new strain is and the effectiveness of vaccines against it.
As viruses spread, they’re expected to mutate over time as the spikes on their surfaces change, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. However, the CDC warns that it’s not yet known how widespread the new mutations are.
However, the genetic make-up is the only information authorities have about the new variant. NIID mentioned the difficulty of proving how infectious the new strain is and the effectiveness of inoculation against it.
Japan’s detection of the new Covid variant comes as countries attempt to tame two other contagious variants that have been detected in the U.K. and South Africa. Public health experts are worried about the impact of the new strains on vaccination efforts.
There is still no proof of the mutated viruses being linked to more severe disease outcomes. However, being more transmissible means it can infect more people, and this could lead to more serious infections and more deaths.
“The more the virus spreads, the higher the chance of new changes to the virus,” Tedros said at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, stressing that the new coronavirus variants seem more contagious than previous strains.
“This can drive a surge of cases and hospitalizations, which is highly problematic for health workers and hospitals already close to breaking point. This is especially true where public health and social measures have already broken down,” Tedros said.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, compared the mutating virus to the start of the second half of a football game. While it does not alter the game’s rules, it does give the “virus some new energy,” he said.
“It adds to the challenge you face because the opposition is bringing on some new players to the field,” Ryan said. “It doesn’t change what we need to do to win. It just changes the strength of the opponent and, in that sense, we have to take from that that we have to redouble our efforts.”
Suppressing the virus’ transmission will keep the mutations from escalating, Tedros said. Existing public health guidance on how to contain the spread of previous strains, like wearing a face covering, social distancing, and handwashing, is effective in preventing the diseases’ spread, he said.
Tedros said that the current Covid vaccines do not seem to be any less effective against the new coronavirus variants, though a modification may happen in the future.
The agency leader stressed that the vaccines must be distributed more equitably across the world to contain the new mutations.
There are now more than 90.4 million Covid cases worldwide and at least 1.9 million deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Countries are attempting to administer their initial doses of Covid-19 vaccines to avoid overwhelming hospitals.