As we enter the first months of 2021, increasing numbers of reports of variants of the COVID-19 virus mark a new development in the pandemic. A variant dominant in the WHO European Region is of concern as it shows signs of being able to spread more easily between people.
Research and observations indicate that the variant spreads across all age groups, and children do not appear to be at higher risk. However, with increased transmissibility, this variant does raise concern: if we do not continue and redouble the measures to slow its spread, there will be a higher impact on health facilities already under stress.
Close monitoring of virus variants
Since the start of the pandemic, WHO has been routinely monitoring and assessing whether variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, result in changes in transmissibility, clinical presentation or severity, or whether they impact on countermeasures, including diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
“Variants are a common phenomenon and are not in themselves dangerous, but they can be if they change the behaviour of the virus; therefore, we need to monitor these developments closely,” says Dr Richard Pebody, who leads the epidemiology and surveillance response on COVID-19 in WHO/Europe. “We are working with experts around the world to monitor and identify which variants are of concern and how they might affect our response.”
A dominant variant in the European Region
The dominant variant currently circulating in the Region is SARS-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01, so named because it was the first “variant of concern” (VOC) detected in December 2020. This variant was originally found in the United Kingdom and has now spread to many countries in the European Region, some reporting circulation within their country. There is currently no evidence that available vaccines are any less effective in preventing it, but there is some evidence that it spreads faster.
Epidemiological and virological investigations are underway in the affected countries to further assess the transmissibility, severity, risk of reinfection and antibody response with regard to new variants. It is expected that continued virus circulation is likely to result in more variants being detected over time.
Higher transmissibility is a risk to health systems
VOC 202012/01 has spread to 30 countries in the Region, with 22 503 cases reported as of 22 January 2021. Many of those countries are projecting that this variant might become dominant in the coming weeks, outnumbering non-variant cases of the COVID-19 virus.
WHO/Europe is still learning about the possible impact of this and other variants. We need to differentiate the significance of these changes for scientific purposes and for public health. The reason we are particularly interested in some variants is that they appear to spread more easily between people.
“Higher transmissibility does not mean a variant transmits in a different way, rather the variant just spreads better. This is cause for concern since as more people get infected with COVID-19, more people will be hospitalized. If this causes our health-care systems to become overwhelmed and less able to cope, more people could be at risk of dying from the virus,” explains Dr Catherine Smallwood, who leads the COVID-19 response team at WHO/Europe. “It is this scenario we are trying to avoid, which is why it is more important than ever to slow down transmission with the use of public health and social measures.”
Working together to contain COVID-19 spread
As the virus variants continue to spread across the Region, it is necessary to increase commitment and engagement to address them.
Countries need to increase sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 viral isolates and report them. WHO also urges continuing and redoubling all of the basic public health and social measures that are known to work, including testing, isolating and treating cases, contact tracing, and quarantine for contacts of cases. Everyone is part of this effort and individuals will need to be extra careful and continue protective measures such as hand hygiene, physical distancing, and wearing a mask when needed.
Let’s not forget that COVID-19 is already a serious disease, and everything should be done to control its spread.