WHO classifies India COVID-19 variant as “global concern”

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The World Health Organization (WHO) said in a press conference on Monday that it is reclassifying the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) variant first identified in India last year as a “variant of global concern,” with some studies showing it spreads more easily.

“We are classifying this as a variant of concern at the global level,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the WHO technical lead on COVID-19, during the briefing. “Even though there is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies, we need much more information about this virus variant and this lineage and all of the sub-lineages.”  

The B.1.617 variant was first identified in December, WHO representatives said, although an earlier version was spotted in October 2020. The variant has already spread to other countries, including the United Kingdom, Fiji, and Singapore. Variants are classified as a concern when there is evidence that they spread more rapidly, cause more severe disease, or evade previously acquired immunity better than circulating versions of the virus.

A study published Tuesday in the journal Nature summarized the available data of the India variant, echoing sentiments that it is “highly likely to be more transmissible.” Studies at this time have involved small groups, so further research is needed. However, experts said the vaccines are likely to remain effective against the B.1.617 variant and limit the severity.

As of press time, India reported 23,340,938 COVID-19 cases. The variant in India is the fourth variant to be designated as being of global concern and requiring heightened tracking and analysis. The others are those first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil.

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