WHO labels COVID-19 variant first found in India as one of global concern

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, May 11) — The World Health Organization has classified the COVID-19 variant first discovered in India as a variant of global concern.

The B.1617 variant has been under investigation since it was found in the South Asian nation in October 2020. But it was only named a "variant of concern" after some preliminary studies show that it spreads more easily.

WHO technical lead on COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, said the decision was based on the findings of its Virus Evolution Working Group and several other experts based on the genomic sequencing samples from India and other nations that have confirmed cases of the B.1617 variant.

"There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility of B.1617... As such, we are classifying this as a variant of concern at the global level," she said in a media briefing on Monday.

The WHO defines a "variant of concern" as one found to have increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology; increase in virulence; or decrease in effectiveness of public health measures, medicine, or vaccines.

Kerkhove stressed there is no data yet to suggest the variant discovered in India makes available COVID-19 vaccines less effective.

She added that the current minimum public health standards, such as physical distancing, wearing of masks, and avoiding crowded and encloses spaces, is still effective against the new variant. She said efforts to follow these rules should be increased to ensure they are observed at all times.

"So far, from the information that we have, the public health and social measures work, but we need to work that much harder to control virus variants that have demonstrated increased transmissibility," Kerkhove said.

The health official said the B.1617 variant has three sub-lineages, adding the full official report will be released on Tuesday.

The Philippines has yet to record a case of the B.1.617 variant.

The Department of Health expects the genome sequencing results of five passengers who tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving in the Philippines from India to be available on Tuesday. The samples of Filipino seafarers who made a stop in India were also sent to the Philippine Genome Center.

The country has imposed an entry ban until May 14 on inbound passengers who traveled to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to prevent the entry of the B.1617 variant.

India has been recording the world's highest number of new daily COVID-19 cases in its catastrophic second wave of infections. The country's cases have soared to over 22.6 million, while more than 246,000 people have lost their lives, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. It's not yet clear how many infections have been linked to this double mutant variant.

The Philippines has hundreds of confirmed cases of the variants first found in United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil — all classified as variants of concern. The Philippines also has 157 cases of the P.3 variant, the variant first detected in the country that is still under investigation.