The novel coronavirus vaccine should still work against a highly infectious new variant of the virus spreading quickly in the United Kingdom. That’s “good news,” the World Health Organization said on Monday.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead for COVID-19, said the mutated variant may be more transmissible, but there is no evidence it would increase the “severity associated with this disease.”
“The U.K. has informed us that they don’t believe that there’s an impact on the vaccine. So that’s good news,” she said.
Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergency expert, said multiple variants have emerged over the last number of months.
However, he emphasized they posed no cause for alarm, adding that “what no variant has done yet is establish itself as having any higher level of severity or evading our diagnostics or hiding from the effectiveness of vaccines.”
“We have to find a balance,” he explained. “It’s very important to have transparency, it’s very important to tell the public the way it is, but it’s also important to get across that this is a normal part of virus evolution.”
Since the British government announced the U.K. variant on Dec. 14, a heap of countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria and Ireland have enacted travel bans in order to help curb the spread of the new virus mutation.
The variant, a SARS-CoV-2 virus B117 strain, has a number of mutations, including the N501Y variation identified through genomic sequencing carried out across the country.
While the variant was first reported last week, Van Kerkhove said British scientists noted an increase in transmission at the end of November and early December, had interventions in place and identified the variant.
“(Scientists in the U.K. are) looking at transmission in this variant, and if there’s any differences in this virus’s ability to transmit, they’re looking at the disease that this variant causes and in terms of clinical presentation and severity, and they’re looking at the body’s antibody response following infection with this variant,” she said.
On Saturday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the variant was “70 per cent more transmissible” than the current COVID-19 variant.
According to Van Kerkhove, that 70 per cent increase translates to the reproduction number — the number of people that one infected individual transmits to another — which has increased from 1.1 to 1.5.
She said scientists are currently trying to determine how much of that spread is associated with the variant itself, as well as “behavioural differences” in those who have been infected.
“Scientists in the lab are working on these types of studies and looking at the antibody response, and we expect results from those studies in the coming days and coming weeks,” she said.
No link between U.K. and South Africa variants
On Friday, South African officials identified a new variant of the virus, known as 501.V2, as the driving force of the country’s second wave as it closed in on 2.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, professor Salim Abdool Karim, chairman of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Committee said it scientists were still in the early stages of studying the variant, but “the preliminary data suggests the virus that is now dominating in the second wave is spreading faster than the first wave.”
Van Kerkhove specified 501.V2 does in fact have one of the same mutations as the U.K. variant — the N501Y — but that it was different from the strain spreading in the U.K.
“It does sound confusing that they’re the same virus,” she explained.
“They’ve arisen at the same time, so it sounds like they’re linked, but that’s actually a separate variant.”
Scientists in South Africa are currently growing the virus so that more studies can be done, Van Kerkhove added.
According to Reuters, a wide range of countries including Israel, Switzerland, Germany and Turkey, banned flights from South Africa on Monday.
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press