WHO to hold special meeting amid concerns over new COVID-19 variant

The World Health Organization (WHO) will hold a special meeting amid concerns about a new COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa, officials said Thursday.

“Our technical advisory group on virus evolution is discussing this with our colleagues in South Africa,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the COVID-19 Technical Lead for WHO, said during a livestreamed Q&A session on Thursday.

“We're also meeting again tomorrow -  we're calling a special meeting to discuss this, not to cause alarm, but just because we have this system in place. We can bring these scientists together and discuss ‘What does it mean?’ and also kind of set the timeline for how long it will take for us to get those answers,” she added. 

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She said officials know the new variant, known as B.1.1.529, has a lot of mutations, but that they are still trying to learn more about the variant. She explained that if officials believe it is a variant of concern, they will continue to monitor it and assign it a Greek name.

Mike Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, warned against people having “knee jerk responses” to the information that was being reported out of South Africa, and he commended the country for being transparent about what they were finding.

Ryan said that it was important that “we remain focused on understanding and characterizing the problem and not punishing countries for doing outstanding scientific work and actually being open and transparent about what they're seeing and what they're finding,” Ryan said.

However, the U.K. has already placed half a dozen nations under its red travel list, meaning that flights from those areas will be barred for now, The Guardian reported. The affected countries include South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s current travel advisory, South Africa, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe are rated as level 1 or “COVID-19 low.” Namibia is rated level 2 or “COVID-19 moderate.” Lesotho is rated level 3 or “COVID-19 high,” and Botswana is rated level 4 or “COVID-19 very high.”