New COVID-19 variants need bolder response, says WHO

Tessy Igomu

The World Health Organisation on Thursday says a bolder response needs to be adopted to deal with the alarming situation brought on by the newly discovered variants of COVID-19 sweeping across the globe.

WHO’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, described the current situation as “a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic.”

He noted that while the New Year “brings with it new opportunities and tools”, such as vaccines, Europe is challenged by surging cases and new strains of COVID-19.

While referring primarily to the new variant first discovered in the UK, Kluge said, “This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short period of time, we need to do more than we have done and to intensify the public health and social measures to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries.”

He noted that while it is natural for viruses to change over time and the new variant is believed to cause more severe symptoms, its “increased transmissibility” means it still raises concern.

“Without increased control to slow its spread, there will be an increased impact on already stressed and pressurised health facilities,” Kluge added.

Based on reports, the British strain and another that emerged in South Africa are both believed to be more infectious versions of the virus.

Kluge said the measures proposed to combat the virus are the ones everyone is familiar with, and listed adherence to mask-wearing, limited social gatherings, physical distancing and hand washing.

He, however, said the measures are prudent but needs to be intensified.

“These measures coupled with adequate testing, quarantine and isolation, and vaccination, will work if we all get involved”, he added.

The WHO also stated that early indications also suggest that vaccines against COVID-19 are effective against the British variant.

Asked whether the new variants warranted closing of schools as many countries did in the spring, Catherine Smallwood, Senior Emergency Officer at WHO Europe, said it should only be considered a last resort.

“The school should be the last to close and the first to open,” she added.

She said whether a variant was involved or not, closing schools need to remain in the toolbox of authorities to slow the spread of the virus.

The WHO’s European Region, which comprises 53 countries that include Russia, several countries in Central Asia and 22 countries in the region have recorded cases of the new variants.

According to the organisation’s estimates, the new strains could replace others across the region.

Europe has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 27.6 million cases and 603,000 deaths, according to WHO’s monitoring.

For 2020, there were close to 313,000 deaths above what would have been expected in the 27 countries that participate in WHO Europe’s monitoring network for excess mortality.

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