There is “no evidence” to suggest that a new variant of the coronavirus causes more severe illness, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Speaking at the weekly WHO briefing in Geneva, Switzerland, Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus along with his team of experts said there is “zero evidence” that there is any increase in severity with the new variant.
The strain identified in Britain, called B117, is considered to be 70% more transmissible than the original variant, according to UK scientists.
Last week, the government announced that a mutated COVID-19 strain was behind a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in London and the South of England.
Watch: What is the new COVID variant?
Though scientists find the spread of the new variant alarming, they have no reason to believe it affects the course of the illness or the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.
Dr Soumya Swaminathin, WHO chief scientist, said: “We’ve seen many variants emerge over the last months. Some have been successful, some have not been successful.
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) December 21, 2020
“No variant has established itself as having a higher severity than the current variant.”
It comes as a UK government adviser warned the new strain could more easily target children.
There is an indication that the new variant of coronavirus infected more children, a scientist on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats advisory group (NervTag) has said.
Speaking at the NervTag Q&A briefing on the new variant, hosted by Science Media Centre, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London said there was strong evidence the new mutant strain is 50% more transmissible than the previous virus.
He added: “We will need to gather more data to see how it behaves going forward.
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“There are other epidemiologically interesting trends with virus, there is a hint that it has a higher propensity to infect children... but we haven’t established any sort of causality on that, but we can see that in the data.”
Wendy Barclay, another NervTag professor and a specialist in virology at Imperial, said that among the mutations in the new variant are changes to the way it enters human cells, which may mean "that children are, perhaps, equally susceptible to this virus as adults".
“Therefore, given their mixing patterns, you would expect to see more children being infected,” Barclay said.
The WHO panel also discussed the new variant discovered in South Africa, which like the UK’s, was identified through genomic sequencing.
The South Africa variant - which shares some characteristics to the new strain that has appeared in the UK but is different - has been present in about nine in 10 new recorded cases in South Africa in recent weeks.
Although the two variants emerged at the same time, the panel confirmed that the variants are different.
The panel said that both countries are doing their own individual studies, and looking at people who are hospitalised with new variant, along with antibody response, although they don’t believe there’s an impact on the vaccine.
Dr Maria Van Kerkove said that measures are in place to bring transmission under control but we must “double down” on public health measures and minimising exposure.
Other countries who have reported identifying the new strains are Denmark, Gibraltar, Netherlands, Italy, Iceland and Australia.
As a result of the new variant, several European countries shut their borders to UK travellers, while other nations such as Canada and Iran suspended all flights from the UK as an emergency response.
On Monday, the UK recorded a further 215 coronavirus deaths, bringing the official death toll to 67,616, with more than 33,000 new confirmed cases of the virus.
Last week, health secretary Matt Hancock said that the new variant was behind the sharp rise in coronavirus cases in London and the south of England, prompting the government to impose harsh restrictions for the festive period.
Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that the capital was one of the areas going into the new Tier 4 to reduce their contacts.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said during a Downing Street press conference on Saturday that the new variant may be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant.
Many had fled London hours before Tier 4 restrictions came into force, a move which Matt Hancock deemed “totally irresponsible”.
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