The World Health Organization’s emergency committee met, two weeks early, on Thursday to discuss the urgent threat from rapidly-spreading new coronavirus variants.
Newly identified mutations of the virus, which appear to be significantly more infectious, come as spiking case numbers force many countries to enforce new restrictions.
The committee normally gathers every three months but the WHO brought the meeting forward to discuss the mutations.
“There are two urgent issues which need particular attention, and for which we seek your advice,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told members, in his opening remarks.
“The first is the recent emergence of new variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus; and the second is the potential use of vaccination and testing certificates for international travel.
“One theme ties both issues together: solidarity. We cannot afford to prioritise or punish certain groups or countries.”
It is the WHO International Health Regulations emergency committee’s sixth meeting on Covid-19.
Following its second meeting on January 30 last year, Tedros declared that the outbreak discovered in China constituted a public health emergency of international concern — the WHO’s highest level of alert.
The latest meeting comes as global infections soared past 92 million and deaths approached two million, with governments around the world reimposing painful economic lockdowns and social restrictions.
“When you first met almost a year ago, just 557 cases of the disease we now call Covid-19 had been reported to WHO,” Tedros lamented.
Vaccines and variants
There are concerns that the new variant strains of the virus may render certain vaccines less effective, undermining hopes that immunisation offers the best hope of recovery from the global pandemic.
The recently-discovered variants can only be identified by sequencing their genetic code — an analysis that is not possible everywhere.
In its weekly epidemiological bulletin, the WHO said the coronavirus mutation first found in Britain had spread to 50 territories, while a similar South African-identified strain has now been found in 20.
A third mutation, originating in the Brazilian Amazon and whose discovery Japan announced on Sunday, is currently being analysed and could impact the immune response, according to the WHO.
“I’m sure, like me, your main hope and wish for 2021 is that together we can end the pandemic and help to restore a sense of normalcy in all countries,” said Tedros.
“The roll-out of vaccines is, of course, giving all of us hope of light at the end of the tunnel.
“WHO’s most urgent focus now is ensuring that all countries have access to vaccines on an equitable basis.”
The UN health agency’s emergencies director Michael Ryan said Wednesday that about 28 million vaccine doses had been administered so far, in around 46 countries — 38 of which are high income, and just one low-income.
The emergency committee of experts is overseen by French doctor Didier Houssin and its recommendations will be published after the meeting, likely on Friday.