WHO to Meet Over Concerns on New COVID Variant

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The World Health Organization is set to hold a special meeting Friday over concerns about a new COVID-19 variant found in South Africa feared to be resistant to vaccines.

The meeting was announced during a livestream on Thursday, where participants said another meeting would be held on Friday.

“Our technical advisory group on virus evolution is discussing this with our colleagues in South Africa,” Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead for WHO, said during the Q&A session on Thursday that was first reported by The Hill.

“We're also meeting again tomorrow — we're calling a special meeting to discuss this, not to cause alarm, but just because we have this system in place,” she said. “We can bring these scientists together and discuss ‘What does it mean?' and also kind of set the timeline for how long it will take for us to get those answers.”

The new variant, B.1.1.529, has many mutations, Van Kerkhove, said, but more is still being learned and if it appears to be of concern it will be given a Greek name.

WHO Health Emergencies Program Executive Director Mike Ryan said the public should not have knee-jerk responses to reports coming from South Africa, and said the country is being transparent.

Nonetheless, Britain on Thursday said it was concerned by the variant and slapped travel restrictions on six African countries.

Britain announced it was temporarily banning flights from South Africa and five other countries from 1200 GMT on Friday and returning British travelers from those destinations would have to quarantine.

“What we do know is there's a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the delta variant,” UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told broadcasters.

“And that would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective.”

Javid said that more data was needed but the travel restrictions were necessary as a precaution, as scientists said lab studies were needed to assess the likelihood of the mutations resulting in greatly reduced vaccine efficacy.

Officials have advised the government on the need to act swiftly and pre-emptively in case the concerns over the impact of variant are borne out, even though it could take weeks to generate all the information needed about its characteristics.

Earlier on Thursday, South African scientists said they had detected the new COVID-19 variant in small numbers and were working to understand its potential implications.

The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, but the UK Health Security Agency said that no cases of the variant had been detected in Britain.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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