WHO elevates Indian coronavirus strain to 'variant of concern'

WHO elevates Indian coronavirus strain to 'variant of concern'

A top official at the World Health Organization on Monday announced the agency is elevating a coronavirus variant first identified in India from a ‘variant to interest,’ to a ‘variant to concern,’ citing early studies suggesting increased transmissibility. 

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, said during a press conference that the B.1.617 variant appeared to spread more readily in preliminary studies released ahead of peer review. But there are still many unknowns around the impact on diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines, she noted. 

Kerkhove said the agency needs much more information around the variant and its three sublineages, such as neutralization and any increased severity, through targeted sequencing. This information could help scientists understand the degree to which the variant is circulating in India and other countries. 

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Additional information is expected to be released Tuesday, she said.

Kerkhove urged the already-established public health measures like distancing, hand hygiene, mask use, avoiding crowded spaces and improving ventilation to prevent against infection from all strains of the virus.

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently lists the Indian variant and its sublineages as a “variant of interest,” U.K. health officials have already moved to classify the Indian virus variant as a “variant of concern” in the country following an uptick in cases and “evidence of community transmission.”

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Public Health England cited evidence suggesting the variant is “at least as transmissible” as the U.K. B.1.1.7 variant, which is believed to spread 50% more easily than the ancestral strain.  

“There is currently insufficient evidence to indicate that any of the variants recently detected in India cause more severe disease or render the vaccines currently deployed any less effective,” PHE wrote in a statement posted Friday. “PHE is carrying out laboratory testing, in collaboration with academic and international partners to better understand the impact of the mutations on the behaviour of the virus.”