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Episode #39 - Update on virus variants

19 May 2021 | Science conversation

Summary

What are the variants circulating at this time? How are variants classified as variants of interest or concern? What does this mean for the public? Dr Maria Van Kerkhove explains in Science in 5 this week.

 

Podcast

Transcript

Vismita Gupta-Smith

When you hear about variants, variants of concern, variants of interest, mutations, double or triple mutations, what does that mean? And what action does the public need to take to protect themselves? Hello and welcome to Science in 5. I'm Vismita Gupta-Smith. Giving us an update on variants today is Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove. Maria, give us an update on the variants that are circulating right now.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove

Thanks for having me back. There are several virus variants that WHO is tracking around the world. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that causes COVID-19 is evolving. This is natural evolution and the virus is expected to change the more the virus circulates around. Currently, there are four variants of concern that WHO is tracking around the world. The B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, the B.1.351, which was first identified in South Africa, the P.1 variant which was first identified in Japan from travellers from Brazil. And now we've recently classified the B.1.617, which was first identified in India. Now, it's really important that you look at the latest information from WHO because this is a fast changing situation. The latest information we have on all of our variants of interest and variants of concern that we are tracking are released on our website in our weekly epidemiological SitRep.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Maria, how does WHO classify a variant as a variant of interest or a variant of concern?

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove

Variants of interest have properties, have mutations that have been identified that need further study. Variants of concern have demonstrated changes. For example, you may have increased transmissibility, there may be a change in disease presentation or severity, or there may be a change in our ability to control the virus with public health and social measures, or the use of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. So the recent variant of concern, the B.1.617, for example, has demonstrated increased transmissibility and this is why this has been classified as a variant of concern. So, you'll notice when I said a variant of concern, I named it by a number, for example B.1.617, and I didn't call it a country name variant. It's really important that we don't do that. We don't say country X variant, because that really adds a stigma associated with these variants. And it's important that surveillance is occurring around the world and we detect these variants very quickly and the information is shared so that it can be analyzed so that we understand the potential implications once they are identified.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

What does this mean for the public?

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove

It means that we need to do everything that we can to prevent infections and reduce the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, whether it's a virus variant, a variant of interest or a variant of concern or not, the SARS-CoV-2 virus can infect us and it can spread between people. So, it means take all of the measures that you can to reduce your exposure in the possibility of you getting infected. It means physical distancing, avoiding crowded spaces, spending more time outdoors than indoors. If you are indoors, make sure that there's good ventilation. It's about having clean hands and wearing a mask properly over your nose and your mouth, practicing respiratory etiquette, being well informed. And no matter what you do know what your risk is and take steps to lower your risk. And lastly, when it's your turn, get vaccinated. There are many studies underway studying the properties of each of these variants of concern in terms of transmissibility, severity and impact on diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. So far from the information that we have from the studies that are underway and the results that are available, the public health and social measures, the diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines do work against these virus variants. We are learning every day and as soon as we have more information, we will share this with you.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Thank you, Maria. That was Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove giving us an update on virus variants. Until next time then. Stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science.

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