As the largest global vaccination program in history gets underway, an increasing number of COVID-19 variants are appearing around the world and putting renewed pressure on health workers and services.
New, more contagious mutated variants of the coronavirus detected in various countries around the world are “highly problematic” and could cause more cases, deaths, and hospitalizations, the head of the World Health Organization warned on Monday.
The WHO was alerted over the weekend to a new COVID-19 strain discovered in Japan, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a press briefing. On Sunday, Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases said it discovered a new coronavirus variant in four travelers arriving from Brazil.
The variant appears to have some of the same mutations as other strains discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa, the institute said. Nevertheless, those mutations, while highly contagious, don’t appear to make people more ill from the virus.
The institute said it is yet to determine how infectious the new strain is or the effectiveness of existing vaccines against it.
As viruses spread, they’re expected to mutate over time as the spikes on their surfaces change, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. However, the CDC warns that it’s not yet known how widespread the new mutations are.
“The more the virus spreads, the higher the chance of new changes to the virus,” Tedros said at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva. “This can drive a surge of cases and hospitalizations, which is highly problematic for health workers and hospitals already close to breaking point.”
The implications of new variants of the virus are potentially grave for the United States and Canada. Although the new variants do not appear to be deadlier or more able to evade vaccines than the original coronavirus, the data suggests they are certainly more transmissible. It makes the vaccination programs currently being rolled out internationally more urgent than ever.
In Europe, countries are already extending and tightening lockdowns. If the new variant races through the United States, it could extinguish hopes of reopening schools and may encourage giving teachers higher priority for vaccination.
It has been suggested by some experts that stretching out vaccination doses and intervals, or giving people two different vaccines at different times, might protect more individuals sooner. Nevertheless, it seems risky to gamble on new approaches not yet verified by clinical trials. In the long run it may be best to stick to the plan, but speed it up as much as possible.
At the same time, a high priority must be to start clinical trials for alternative vaccination strategies with the goal of making the best use of every available tool to slow the pandemic. The appearance of new variants means that time is absolutely of the essence, even more so than before.