The World Health Organization (WHO) said Monday that Japan has notified it of a new variant of coronavirus, amid concern over more infectious strains discovered in the United Kingdom and South Africa.
"Over the weekend, WHO was notified by Japan about a new variant of the virus," said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, at a news conference.
"The more the virus spreads the higher the chance of new changes to the virus. Most notably, transmissibility of some variants of the virus appears to be increasing," he said.
He did not provide details on whether the variant found in Japan is more infectious. Experts say new variants are not unexpected as the virus continues to spread so widely, but that they should be monitored carefully.
Bloomberg reported that Japanese officials said they do not yet know the infectiousness of the new variant and that it was found in four people arriving from Brazil.
Experts say they have not yet seen evidence that new variants cause more severe disease or are resistant to vaccines, but they are still studying the issue, and an increased infectiousness poses an increased threat to hospitals.
"This can drive a surge of cases and hospitalizations, which is highly problematic for health workers and hospitals already close to breaking point," Tedros said.
He urged people to continue to follow public health measures such as distancing from others, wearing a mask and washing hands.
Experts point to stepping up the sequencing of the virus so that officials can keep track of new variants and adjust.
"What’s most critical is that we sequence the virus effectively so we know how it’s changing and how to respond," Tedros said. "For example, while diagnostics and vaccines still seem to be effective against the current virus, we may need to tweak them in the future."