Rapid Increase In COVID Cases ‘Not Due To The Variant’, WHO Says
Shoppers gathered in malls in Geneva, Switzerland after restaurants and stores reopened on 6 June. WHO officials said that changing mixing patterns over the summer, into the fall and over the holidays has directly impacted the current spikes around the world.

The “almost vertical” spike in SARS-CoV-2 infections seen in many countries over the last few weeks is largely due to increased social contact and not virus mutations, WHO has said.

Speaking at a media briefing on Monday, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead, stated that sharp increases in transmission had occurred in a number of countries “before these variants were circulating”, adding that this “was due to increased mixing of people”.

Countries currently being overwhelmed with COVID cases include the United Kingdom, the United States, Israel and Ireland.

Yesterday, the latter recorded 1,288 cases per million people, while the UK and US recorded 854 and 751 respectively.

“We changed our mixing patterns over the summer, into the fall and especially around the Christmas and holiday period,” Dr Van Kerkhove added.

“The number of contacts that individuals and their families had increased significantly over the Christmas and New Year holiday. That’s had a direct impact on the exponential growth in many countries.”

She highlighted that, when plotted on a line graph (as below), the rising case rates appear vertical for some countries. “[It’s] not at a slant, it’s almost vertical,” she repeated.

Daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases per million people, as of 12 January 2020. Dr Maria Van Kerkhove highlighted the “almost vertical” increase.
Variants Are Not The Drivers Of Transmission

Mike Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, pointed to Ireland to illustrate exactly how case rates have been impacted by poor adherence to social distancing measures.

On 10 December, Ireland had recorded just 282 new daily cases; that was in comparison  to more than 6,500 new cases on 10 January.

“[Ireland] has suffered one of the most acute disease incidents of any country in the world over the last couple of months, and not due to the variant let me add,” he said,” but mainly due to increased social mixing and reduction of physical distancing.”

Over the past few weeks, authorities in the UK, as well as elsewhere in Europe and  the world have suggested   that the emergence of new mutations, such as those identified in the UK and South Africa in December and in Japan last week, have been the cause of the current spikes being seen in infections.

British  Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that its regional-lockdown tier system “[was] working with the old variant but alas this mutation, spreading with frightening speed and ease, has led to more cases than we’ve seen ever before”.

Johnson made this claim on 6 January, as he announced England would be returning to a full lockdown – its third national tightening – until at least March.

Ryan’s warning appears, then, to serve as a reminder that these restrictions are now vital in countries which “lost control” of the virus in the second half of 2020.

“The national reference laboratory [in Ireland is] doing superb surveillance for the new variant strains which they are tracking,” Dr Ryan added. “They have not been the driver of new transmission, but new variants will emerge.”

“Those countries that have managed to bring transmission down: keep it down. Do everything you can to keep it down,” Van kerkhove added.

“If any clusters are identified, really quick, rapid, aggressive investigation of those cases [are needed], so that those small numbers of cases do not become community transmission. We have been shown over and over again that countries can do this.”

Image Credits: S. Lustig Vijay/HP-Watch, Our World in Data.

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