WHO: no evidence mutant virus strain more deadly

The global health agency cautions against major alarm

A woman wears a Union flag themed face mask as an anti-lockdown demonstration takes place in Parliament Square, in London, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. Britain launched its vaccination program this month after becoming the first country to give emergency approval to the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, and authorities plan to dispense 800,000 doses in the first phase. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
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The World Health Organisation cautioned against major alarm over a new, highly infectious variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in Britain and clarified that it was a normal part of a pandemic’s evolution.

Officials even sought to put a positive light on the discovery of the new strains and said being able to track them was "a positive development for global public health".

The new variant of the virus has prompted a slew of alarmed countries to impose travel restrictions on Britain and South Africa, but the WHO said it was important to "find a balance".

"It's very important to have transparency, it's very important to tell the public the way it is, but it's also important to get across that this is a normal part of virus evolution," Mike Ryan, WHO emergencies chief, said.

"Being able to track a virus this closely, this carefully, this scientifically in real time is a real positive development for global public health, and the countries doing this type of surveillance should be commended."

Citing data from Britain, WHO officials said they had no evidence that the variant made people more sick or was deadlier than existing strains of Covid-19, although it did seem to spread more easily.

Countries imposing travel curbs were acting out of an abundance of caution while they assess risks, Mr Ryan said.

"That is prudent. But it is also important that everyone recognises that this happens, these variants occur."

WHO officials said coronavirus mutations had so far been much slower than with influenza and that even the new UK variant remained much less transmissible than other diseases like mumps.

They said vaccines developed to combat Covid-19 should handle the new variants as well, although checks were under way to ensure this was the case.

"So far, even though we have seen a number of changes, a number of mutations, none has made a significant impact on either the susceptibility of the virus to any of the currently used therapeutics, drugs or the vaccines under development and one hopes that will continue to be the case," WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said.

The WHO said it expected to get more detail within days or weeks on the potential impact of the highly transmissible new coronavirus strain.