Over the holiday weekend, more than a dozen countries reported cases involving the UK SARS-CoV-2 variant, with a few reporting their first cases of a similar but distinct South African variant.
As the world approached 1 year since the first media reports surfaced of an unusual pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan, China, the global case count topped 80 million.
Variant detected in multiple countries
Following the recent detection of the more-transmissible UK variant, several more countries spanning multiple continents reported their first detections over the weekend, triggering more travel bans and other related measures to slow the spread.
In North America, the Public Health Agency of Canada on Dec 26 reported two cases in Ontario, both in people who did not travel outside of Canada. The country extended its ban on flights from the UK until Jan 6.
At least 14 other countries over the past few days reported similar cases, according to official sources and media reports, including France, Japan, Denmark, South Korea, Finland, Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Lebanon, Singapore, and Australia.
In other variant developments, another new variant has been reported from Nigeria, according CBS News. John Nkengasong, PhD, of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said further investigation is under way by Nigerian scientists and those at the African Center of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases.
Scientists rush to see how variants behave
At a World Health Organization (WHO) briefing today, Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the group's technical lead for COVID-19, said the WHO is in touch with UK officials daily and that researchers were working over the holidays on lab studies to learn more about the variant viruses, including antibody response. She said a new case control study from the UK suggests that there are no differences in hospitalizations, case-fatality rates over 28 days, or reinfections.
Van Kerkhove also said South African researchers are currently growing the virus to enable neutralization and other studies and that officials are also examining the epidemiology of illnesses involving the new variant.
"Lab studies take time, and we expect more info on both in the coming days and weeks," she said.
In a Dec 23 preprint study, researchers from the UK estimated that the variant is 56% more transmissible, which is likely to lead to a large increase in incidence, with hospitalizations and deaths likely to reach even higher levels. However, they didn't find clear evidence that the variant's severity is any different than those of existing viruses.
In wake of variants, cases soar in UK and South Africa
Meanwhile, the UK today reported a new record single-day high of 41,385 cases. In a statement, Yvonne Doyle, MD, MPH, Public Health England's (PHE's) medical director, said, "This very high level of infection is of growing concern at a time when our hospitals are at their most vulnerable, with new admissions rising in many regions." A few days ago PHE said lateral flow tests can detect the new UK variant.
In South Africa, where cases area also soaring, President Cyril Ramaphosa today announced new restrictions on gatherings, a new curfew, and a ban on alcohol sales," according to the BBC. He said the country is at a dangerous point in the pandemic and that hospitals and medical centers are reporting large rises in admissions.
WHO officials today emphasized that reducing transmission gives the virus fewer opportunities to change and that making the best use of current measures such as physical distancing, face masks, and now vaccination can help reduce the spread of the variant viruses. Van Kerkhove said the variant developments are another wake-up call that the world needs even more resolve to battle COVID-19. "I know we are all fed up, but we can't lose this battle now," she said. "We need to put in the work to reduce risk everywhere we can."
Other global developments
For the second year in a row, China is warning against Lunar New Year travel for some areas, due to the threat of COVID-19 spread, after local cases were reported in two areas, mainly in Dalian, a port city in the north, according to the New York Times. Over the past week, the country reported 42 new cases, mostly from unknown sources. Though most were in Dalian, a few cases were also reported in Beijing.
Residents of Dalian have been asked to not leave the city, and Beijing officials are discouraging travel and gatherings, especially for older people, pregnant women, and people with underlying health conditions.
In other global headlines:
- Vaccine campaigns launched in European Union countries yesterday, following the Dec 21 emergency use approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine by the European Medicines Agency, according to CNN.
- AstraZeneca Chief Executive Officer Pascal Soriot told the Sunday Times that new data will show that the vaccine it developed with Oxford University is on par with the 95% effectiveness reported by two makers of mRNA vaccines. He said with two doses, the efficacy will be comparable, but declined to reveal more details prior to publication.
- The global total currently stands at 81,114,788 cases, and 1,770,562 people have died from their infections, according to the Johns Hopkins online dashboard.