COVID variants expected but monitoring of changes should continue, say expertsFriday, May 14, 2021
WASHINGTON, United States (CMC) — Variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 are to be expected, but genomic surveillance in the Americas should continue to detect any unusual or unexpected increase in cases, increase in lethality or change in clinical patterns that could affect control measures including vaccines, a group of experts said.
The statement was made during a webinar for journalists, experts from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz).
PAHO's Advisor on Emerging Viral Diseases, Dr Jairo Mendez Rico, said mutations are expected in the virus evolution and adaptation process, noting that when these variants have a potential impact or risk for public health, they are considered variants of concern (VOC).
The four variants of concern that have been detected in the Americas include those that originated in the United Kingdom (B 1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351), Brazil (P.1), and India (B.1.617).
So far, 37 countries and territories have confirmed the presence of one or more of the four variants of concern — the UK variant was confirmed in 34 countries; South Africa's variant in 17, Brazil's variant in 21 countries, and India's variant in eight countries.
However, Mendez said, “Although some (variants of concern) have demonstrated enhanced capacity to replicate and transmit, they are not more aggressive or severe.”
He pointed out that from an evolutionary perspective, it is not in the virus's interest to kill its host. Mendez added that “so far, there is not sufficient evidence to infer that currently available vaccines do not work with these variants”.
According to PAHO, the higher the transmission level within populations, the more likely it is that viral mutations will occur. But the experts agreed that slowing or halting transmission is the only way to avoid the appearance of new variants.
They further recommend maintaining all public health measures where the virus is circulating, regardless of the variants. These include using face masks, maintaining physical distancing from others, avoiding crowded, closed spaces, opening windows for ventilation, hand hygiene, and getting vaccinated when vaccines become available.
They also recommend strengthening both epidemiological and genomic surveillance to reduce the spread of the virus and possible mutations.
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