WHO Upgrades Virus Mutation Driving India’s COVID Surge To ‘Variant of Concern’ – Global Cases Start To ‘Plateau’
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has decided to classify the B1.617 variant first identified in India as a “variant of concern”, according to Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO lead on COVID-19.

“There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility of B1.617,” Van Kerkhove explained to the WHO’s biweekly media briefing on Monday.

In addition, a preprint (a paper that has not undergone peer review) involving a limited number of patients suggested that there is also “some reduced neutralisation” [of antibodies] and as such we are classifying it as a variant of concern”, said Van Kerkhove.

However, she stressed: “We don’t have anything to suggest that our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines don’t work. This is important as we will continue to see variants of concern around the world.”

Over the weekend, India reported over 4,000 deaths in 24 hours and it is recording over 400,000 new cases every day.

WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan added that genomic surveillance was ongoing in India and scientists were looking at transmissibility, clinical security, and the response of the B1.617 variant to antibodies generated in people who have been vaccinated with the three main vaccines being used in India – Covaxin (developed by Bharat Biotech), Covishield (AstraZeneca) and Sputnik. 

“Over the coming weeks, there’ll be much more data forthcoming,” she added.

WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan

Cases Plateau – But at Very High Rate

WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told the briefing that global COVID-19 cases have started to “plateau” – but at an “unacceptably high” rate with more than 5.4 million new cases and almost 90,000 deaths in the past week.

“Cases and deaths are still increasing rapidly in WHO’s South East Asia region and there are countries in every region with increasing trends,” added Tedros. 

“The spread of variants, increased social mixing, the relaxation of public health and social measures and inequitable vaccination, are all driving transmission,” he added.

Condemning vaccine diplomacy as “geopolitical maneuvering”, Tedros said that only global cooperation and solidarity can end the COVID-19 pandemic.

“High and upper-middle income countries represent 53% of the world’s population, but have received 83% of the world’s vaccines,” said Tedros. “In contrast, low and lower middle income countries account for 47% of the world’s population but have received just 17% of the world’s vaccines. Redressing this global imbalance is an essential part of the solution, but not the only part and not an immediate solution.”

Seychelles Surge in Cases Seem to Have Occurred After First Jab

Addressing reports that cases in Seychelles were surging despite the high vaccination rate of citizens, Dr Kate O’Brien, the WHO’s Director of Immunisation and Vaccines, said that some of the infections occurred after the first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine.

“The Sinopharm vaccine really requires two doses, and some of the cases that are being reported are occurring either soon after a single dose or soon after a second dose or between the first and second doses,” said O’Brien.

Approximately 60% of vaccinations on the island are of Sinopharm vaccines donated by the United Arab Emirates, while the remainder of doses are of the AstraZeneca vaccine, according to the Washington Post.

“When we see cases continuing to occur in the setting of vaccines, it really does require a very detailed assessment of what the situation is,” she stressed.

“First of all, what are the strains that are circulating in the country? Secondly, when do the cases occur relative to when somebody received doses? Third, what is the severity of the cases? Only by doing that kind of evaluation can we make an assessment of whether or not these are vaccine failures or whether it is more about the kinds of cases that are occurring, the milder end of cases, and then the timing of the cases relative to when individuals received doses.”

She stressed that this evaluation is “ongoing”, and the WHO was supporting and engaging with Seychelles to understand what was happening.

Image Credits: Adnan Abidi/Flickr, WHO.

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