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Pan American Health Organization continues to watch for COVID-19 variants

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Posted: Friday, May 14, 2021. 1:46 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: In the Americas, a network of laboratories from 22 countries contributes to the detection of SARS-CoV-2 variants. So far, 37 countries and territories have confirmed the presence of one or more of the four variants of concern. Monitoring them is key to detecting any unusual or unexpected changes that could affect control measures including vaccines.

During a Webinar for journalists, experts from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) discussed key questions raised by the variants, including their impact on transmissibility, the severity of COVID-19, and the effectiveness of vaccines against them.

Such mutations are expected as the virus evolves and adapts, said Dr. Jairo Mendez Rico, PAHO’s advisor on emerging viral diseases. The four current variants of concern (VOC) found in the Americas are those that originated in the United Kingdom (B 1.1.7), South Africa (B.1.351), Brazil (P.1), and India (B.1.617).

Some 37 countries and territories have confirmed the presence of one or more of the VOCs, including Belize, which saw one case of the UK variant in a British soldier on training in January. Variant B.1.1.7 was confirmed in 34 countries; variant B.1.351 in 17, variant P.1 in 21 countries, and variant B.1.617 in eight countries.

Dr. Mendez Rico says viruses have the objective to enter human cells and replicate and thus avoid either a natural or vaccine-mediated immune response, but some of the VOCs are not necessarily more aggressive or severe, and there is not sufficient evidence to infer that currently available vaccines do not work with these variants.

The higher the transmission level within populations, the more likely it is that viral mutations will occur. The experts agreed that slowing or halting transmission is the only way to avoid the appearance of new variants.

They recommend maintaining all public health measures where the virus is circulating, regardless of the variants. These include using face masks, maintaining physical distancing from others, avoiding crowded, closed spaces, opening windows for ventilation, hand hygiene, and getting vaccinated when vaccines become available. They also recommend strengthening both epidemiological and genomic surveillance to reduce the spread of the virus and possible mutations.

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