New COVID19 Variants Don’t Change the Rules of the Game

(13 Jan 2021)
A day-long virtual meeting of scientists from around
the globe, convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) on
Tuesday,
brought together more than 1,750 experts from 124 countries to
discuss critical knowledge gaps and research priorities for
emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID19.

Welcoming them, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO
Director-General, said, “Science and research have played a vital
role in responding to the pandemic since day one and will continue
to be the heartbeat of everything WHO does.”

The consultation was structured around six
thematic areas covering epidemiology and mathematical modelling,
evolutionary biology, animal models, assays and diagnostics,
clinical management and therapeutics and vaccines.

Scientists noted the importance of research to
detect and understand early on the potential impact of emerging
variants on diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

There was a consensus on the importance of
integrating the new SARS-CoV-2 variants research into the global
research and innovation agenda while enhancing coordination across
disciplines.

“Our collective goal is to get ahead of the game
and have a global mechanism to quickly identify and study variants
of concern and understand their implications for disease control
efforts,” said Dr Ana Maria Henao Restrepo, Head of WHO’s R&D
Blueprint.

It is normal for viruses to mutate, but the more
the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads, the more opportunities it has to
change. High levels of transmission mean that we should expect
more variants to emerge.

Of the significant variants reported so far, two
in particular – B.1.1.7. and 501Y.V2 – are associated with
increases in transmissibility but not disease severity. Research
is ongoing to address whether the changes impact public health
tools and measures.

Genomic sequencing has been critical in
identifying and responding to new variants.

“So far an astounding 350,000 sequences have been
publicly shared, but most come from just a handful of countries.
Improving the geographic coverage of sequencing is critical for
the world to have eyes and ears on changes to the virus,” said Dr
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead on COVID19.

Increasing sequencing capacity across the world is
a priority research area for WHO.

Better surveillance and laboratory capacity to
monitor strains of concern needs to be accompanied by prompt
sharing of virus and serum samples via globally agreed mechanisms
so that critical research can be promptly initiated each time.

Scientists highlighted the importance of national
data platforms to document critical clinical, epidemiological and
virus data that facilitates the detection and assessment of new
SARS-CoV-2 variants.

Whilst some of the new variants are causing a
great deal of concern, Dr. Mike Ryan, Executive Director, WHO
Health Emergencies Programme, says they have not changed the game.
Speaking at the WHO’s press conference on Monday, Dr. Ryan said,
“This is like adding a substitute in the second half of a football
game. It doesn’t change the rules of the game, it doesn’t change
what you do, but it gives the virus some new energy, some new
impetus. It adds to the challenge you face because the opposition
is bringing on some new players to the field. It doesn’t change
the rules of the game though. It doesn’t change what we need to do
to win. It just changes the strength of the opponent, and in that
sense we have to take from that we just need to redouble our
efforts.”

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