Scientists globally have started “urgent work” to establish whether the new strain of COVID-19 virus, identified last week in South Africa and South-East of England, can cause a higher mortality rate in the global fight against the dreaded disease.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) disclosed it was in touch with South African researchers who identified the new variant.
WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove told a news conference in Geneva, “We are working with them with our SARS-COV-2 Virus evolution working group. They are growing the virus in the country and they’re working with researchers to determine any changes in the behaviour of the virus itself in terms of transmission.”
Last week South Africa had identified a new variant of the coronavirus that is driving a second wave of infections in the country few days after Britain said it had also found a new variant of the virus boosting cases.
The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had declared last Saturday on National television that a new strain of COVID-19 was spreading rapidly in some parts of the country. In his words, “The spread is being driven by the new variant of the virus and It appears to spread more easily and may be up to 70% more transmissible than the earlier strain.”
In South Africa, health authorities said the new variant seemed to spread faster than the previous one, but that it was too early to tell its severity and whether current vaccines would work against it. “The evidence that has been collated, therefore, strongly suggests that the current second wave we are experiencing is being driven by this new variant,” Health Minister, Mkhize explained.
South Africa has by far the highest rate of COVID-19 infection in Africa. The number of COVID-19 cases in the country is rapidly approaching a million, with the number of deaths moving towards 25,000.
In the UK, corroborating Boris Johnson’s position, Prof Tulio de Oliviera, a member of government’s genomics consortium also declared at the televised briefing that “In the UK they have also identified a new variant … there are quite a few similarities between the two lineages … there are also a similar number of mutations”
Expectations of millions of Britons that COVID-19 restrictions would be eased over Christmas were dashed on Saturday, after scientists warned the new strain of the virus is spreading more quickly than others.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson then went ahead to announce series of stricter coronavirus restrictions, tightening rules around household mixing that were due to be relaxed over Christmas in England, while leaders in Scotland and Wales also introduced more stringent measures. The UK has among the highest COVID-19 death rates in Europe, with more than 67,000 fatalities, and over 2 million cases.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, also warned last Saturday that the newly identified variant of COVID-19 “can spread more quickly” than previous strains of the virus.