MANILA - Health authorities have identified variants of the coronavirus, believed to be driving the current surge in infections in parts of the world.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has said that viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, change over time and mutate constantly.
"But most of these mutations or changes do not have a direct benefit to the virus or may even be detrimental to its propagation," it said.
However, the UN health agency cautioned that more investigation was needed to fully understand the impact of specific mutation on viral properties and the effectiveness of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.
Due to the threat of coronavirus mutations, which experts fear are more transmissible, countries have imposed travel restrictions, including the Philippines, to rein its spread.
Since the pandemic began, the SARS-CoV-2, which causes the disease, has infected more than 80 million people, of which over 1.7 million have died, according to a running tally from US-based Johns Hopkins University.
Here's what's known about the coronavirus variants:
This variant is referred to as SARS-CoV-2 VUI 202012/01 (Variant Under Investigation, year 2020, month 12, variant 01), the WHO said. It is also called B.1.1.7.
Initial analysis indicates that the variant may spread more readily between people, with an estimated increase of between 40 percent and 70 percent in transmissibility, it added.
Investigations are ongoing to determine if this variant is associated with any changes in the severity of symptoms, antibody response or vaccine efficacy.
The WHO said retrospective analysis traced the first identified variant to Kent, South East England on Sept. 20 2020, which was followed by a rapid increase of the same variant identified later in November.
Most COVID-19 cases from whom this variant have occurred in people under 60 years of age, the agency added.
This variant has already reached several countries, including Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Australia.
The new variant, referred to as 501.V2, was discovered by a network of scientists around South Africa who had been tracking the genetics of the SARS-COV-2 virus.
The variant appears to be focused in the south and southeast regions of the country and has been dominating findings from samples collected since October, they said.
First identified in Nelson Mandela Bay, along South Africa’s east coast, it spread rapidly to other districts in the Eastern Cape, and to the Western Cape and KwaZulu Natal (KZN) provinces.
Scientists said the variant was different from others circulating in South Africa because it has multiple mutations in the important “spike” protein that the virus uses to infect human cells.
It has also been associated with a higher viral load, meaning a higher concentration of virus particles in patients’ bodies, possibly contributing to higher levels of transmission.
Between 80 percent and 90 percent of new cases in the country are carrying the mutant variant, according to health authorities.
The variants reported by South Africa and the UK share a common change in the spike protein that may make them more infectious.
But they are different variants, and sequence analysis revealed that they originated separately, the WHO had said.
Another coronavirus variant also emerged in Nigeria, the head of Africa’s disease control body had revealed.
“It’s a separate lineage from the UK and the South African lineages,” John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had said.
Researchers are conducting further investigations on this new N501Y variant to determine if it is more infectious, more transmissible, or has the potential to cause more severe illness, the Africa CDC said on its website.
"Research is also being conducted to assess the impact of the mutations on the performance of existing molecular diagnostics, serological assays, therapeutics, and vaccines," it added.
The news comes as Africa is experiencing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In November, Danish health authorities reported coronavirus mutation referred to as Cluster 5 stemming from mink farms in the northern part of the country.
In response to possible contagion, the government decided to cull all farmed mink in Denmark. This decision was made following information that it had not been possible to prevent the spread of infection from farm to farm, or from animals to humans.
Over 300 COVID-19 cases were reported among people associated with mink farming in November, the WHO said.
As Nov. 20, no new human cases of the Cluster 5 mutation have been detected by genetic sequencing, and authorities assessed that the Cluster 5 variant is no longer circulating in humans.
The WHO said minks appear to be susceptible to the new virus and “good reservoirs” for the virus. Outbreaks have occurred on mink farms in Denmark, the Netherlands, Spain and the United States.
- With reports from Reuters