New variants of novel coronavirus detected worldwide, worrying public health experts

TORONTO — More variants of the novel coronavirus are being detected worldwide, ramping up fears in Canada around the increased transmission some of these variants could bring.

They’re known as “variants of concern” according to the World Health Organization, and since the first variant emerged in the U.K., it and other variants have spread to numerous countries. The U.K. variant alone has been detected in 60 countries. A new variant emerged this week in a German ski town in Bavaria, making up 35 newly-infected cases in the hospital, according to local media reports.

Officials said the variant was different than others making their way across the globe.

In virus-stricken California, where doctors are already dealing with overwhelmed hospitals as a result of the highly transmissible U.K. variant, another variant has also been ramping up.

It’s called “452R” and isn’t technically new — it was first detected in Denmark a year ago and in California since May. It’s not thought to be more deadly, but it could be more transmissible than the original virus, like most of the variants that have been discovered.

“Something that’s stickier like this new variant potentially is can cause us to have setbacks in all of the hard work that we’ve done so far,” said Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a professor with the University of California San Fransisco School of Medicine.

Two of the variants causing a lot of concern are from Brazil and from South Africa.

Scientists from the lab that discovered the South Africa variant (known as the 501Y.V2 variant) explained that the variant is more efficient at targeting healthy cells because of key mutations in its structure.

“It has to get in and it has to get out before the cell dies, because the virus has no life of its own,” Alex Sigal, with the African Health Research Institute, explained to CNN.

Studying how these variants work will be a hugely important part of the COVID-19 response, WHO stressed in a recent press release. The organization held an emergency meeting last week to address the topic of the variants, affirming the importance of global collaboration on research.

In the meeting, WHO vowed to make the sequencing of different variants a priority by improving capacity for that type of research worldwide.

Scientists in Canada are also on the hunt to get answers about these variants and others like them.

Graham Tipples, medical scientific director of the provincial Public Health Lab in Alberta, told CTV News that variants outside of those scientists have already identified will certainly “continue to arise,” and that we’ll only know through research if they pose a unique threat or not.

“We need to understand whether any of them have significant altered characteristics that might affect immunization, that might affect diagnostics, that might affect causing more severe disease,” he said.

He added that scientists needed to keep an eye on the specific structure of the variants for testing as well.

“The targets that we have for our diagnostic test may be affected by a particular mutation, so we have to be aware of how the virus changes so that our tests don’t come up negative, because of a mutation.”

Some doctors are so concerned about the potential spread of these new variants in Canada that they’ve launched a petition asking governments to restrict travel to stop variants from arriving here.

The petition declares that “the #CanadianShield starts at the border” and notes that the B.1.1.7 variant – one of several terms for the U.K. variant – is estimated to be 30-60 per cent more transmissible than the current strain circulating in Canada.

The petition calls on the federal government to restrict international travel by more clearly defining essential travel and enforcing the criteria.

Scientists say we need to remain vigilant when it comes to these variants.

“There could be ones that may be more deadly down the road, and so we want to make sure we try to reduce the amount of virus spreading because the more we allow it to spread, the more chance of these variants to appear,” Jeff Kwong, a professor of public health and family medicine at the University of Toronto, told CTV News.

He pointed out that the U.K. variant has already led to huge outbreaks in the U.K. Only a few cases of this variant have been identified in Canada so far, but experts say if it is allowed to spread, it could become the dominant strain.

“We need to make sure we don’t allow for more cases to come into Canada, because once it catches fire here then we’re in big trouble,” Kwong said.

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