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Episode #28 - Evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus

5 March 2021 | Science conversation

Summary

What is the latest information on the SARS-CoV-2 virus variants? How is WHO tracking these virus mutations globally and how do we know which ones are important? Answering these questions in this episode of Science in 5 is WHO's Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove. 

Podcast

Transcript

Host:

Hello, welcome to Science in 5. I'm P.A. and this is WHO's conversations in science. Today, we'll be speaking about the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which is the virus that causes COVID-19. Here to answer our questions is WHO's Dr Maria Van Kerkhove. Welcome back to the show, Maria.

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove:

Thanks for having me.

Host:

Maria, what is the latest information on the SARS-CoV-2 variants?

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove:

WHO with partners are currently tracking three virus variants, variants of concern that are circulating around the world. The first is the B.1.1.7 that was first identified in the United Kingdom. The second is the B.1.351 that was first identified in South Africa. And the third is the P.1, which was first, it's circulating in Brazil, but it was identified among travelers arriving in Japan. We are tracking changes in the virus and what this means in terms of transmission, severity and impact or potential impact on diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. So far, the information that we have is that there is increased transmissibility in the B.1.1.7 and the B.1.351 virus variants. And this is resulting from a mutation that allows this virus variant to bind to the cell, the human cell, more easily. We do not see an increase yet in transmission with the P.1, but that is currently under investigation. In terms of severity, there are some studies from the United Kingdom that suggest that the B.1.1.7 has increased severity. There are studies that are underway that are evaluating the effect of vaccines against these virus variants. And from the information that we have so far, the vaccines still work against these virus variants. 

Host:

Maria, how is tracking virus mutations globally and how do we know which ones are important?

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove:

So WHO is tracking different mutations and variants around the world through genomic sequencing. We are working with our member states and with partners around the world to increase sequencing capacity around the world so that we can identify any changes in the virus over time. This is natural virus evolution and many countries around the world have actually been sequencing viruses from the beginning of this pandemic. We are working to increase the ability to do sequencing around the world so that we can see in all countries where changes are being detected and where variants of interest are being detected. So WHO is tracking different mutations and variants around the world through genomic sequencing. We are working with our member states and with partners around the world to increase sequencing capacity around the world so that we can identify any changes in the virus over time. This is natural virus evolution and many countries around the world have actually been sequencing viruses from the beginning of this pandemic. We are working to increase the ability to do sequencing around the world so that we can see in all countries where changes are being detected and where variants of interest are being detected.

The variants that are important are ones that have changes in the way that the virus behave. Either they may have increased transmissibility, they may cause more severe disease, or they may have some kind of impact on the on the workings of our diagnostics or therapeutics and vaccines. If any of the variants have any of those changes, those are variants of concern. And we need to make sure that we study those appropriately and that any changes that are needed in our public health and social measures or in the way that we develop our diagnostics or the vaccine composition are informed by our understanding of what those changes are.

Host:

Maria, what can people do to protect themselves against the SARS-CoV-2 variants?

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove:

There's so much that you can do to protect yourself against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including the variants that have been reported. It's all about the individual level measures, physical distancing, hand hygiene, wearing a mask, respiratory etiquette, opening a window, avoiding crowded spaces, staying home if you're unwell, making sure you get tested if needed, following the local advice where you live. We have seen in a number of countries where these virus variants are circulating, that transmission is being reduced with the use of these measures. And this is really critical. We have had many global consultations and meetings to look at these virus variants and determine if any changes are needed in our guidance. And so far, with all of the information that we have, the public health and social measures, the infection prevention and control measures in health care facilities and outside of health care facilities work against these virus variants. Take all of the steps that you can to keep yourself and your loved ones safe against SARS-CoV-2.

Host:

Thank you, Maria. That was WHO's Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove explaining the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Please share this information with your networks and we'll update you as more comes in. Until next time then. Stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science.

 

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