WHO says ‘alarming’ virus variants need bolder response

The World Health Organization’s European branch says more needs to be done to deal with the alarming situation brought on by recently discovered variants of the novel coronavirus.

The WHO’s regional director for Europe, Hans Kluge, calls the current situation “a tipping-point in the course of the pandemic.”

While the new year “brings with it new opportunities and tools,” such as vaccines, Europe is also challenged by surging cases and new strains of the virus causing COVID-19.

“This is an alarming situation, which means that for a short period of time we need to do more than we have done and to intensify the public health and social measures to be certain we can flatten the steep vertical line in some countries,” Kluge says, referring primarily to the new variant first discovered in the UK.

While it is natural for viruses to change over time and the variant is not believed to cause more severe symptoms, its “increased transmissibility” means it still raises concern, according to WHO Europe.

A paramedic wearing full PPE unloads a patient from an ambulance outside the Royal London Hospital in east London on January 6, 2021 (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

“Without increased control to slow its spread, there will be an increased impact on already stressed and pressurized health facilities,” Kluge says.

The British strain and another that emerged in South Africa are both believed to be more infectious versions of the virus.

The measures proposed by Kluge were those “with which we are all familiar,” listing the adherence to generalized mask-wearing, limiting social gatherings, maintaining physical distance and hand washing as prudent but in need of being intensified.

These measures coupled with adequate testing, quarantine and isolation, and vaccination, “will work if we all get involved,” Kluge says.

Early indications also suggest that vaccines against COVID-19 are effective against the British variant, according to WHO.

The WHO’s European Region comprises 53 countries and includes Russia and several countries in Central Asia, and 22 countries in the region have recorded cases of the new variants.

According to the organization’s estimates, the new strains could replace others across the region.