- The mutant was first identified in UK in September
- Initial data suggests it is up to 70 per cent more transmissible
- On Sunday, Italy had reported a person infected with the new strain
A mutant strain of the novel coronavirus - first identified in the UK in September and which is rapidly replacing other variations of the virus - may already be present in several countries, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organisation, told NDTV Monday night.
However, she also said it is still too early to draw conclusions about the new strain - which initial data suggests is up to 70 per cent more infectious - and that it is "unlikely a couple of mutations" could affect the immune system's response to one of the existing Covid vaccines.
"The UK is one of those countries that is doing a lot of whole genome sequencing and is therefore able to track this very closely in real time. I suspect that as more countries look at their data, they might find this variant, or a related variant, might already be there," Dr Swaminathan told NDTV.
On Sunday the UK said Italy had reported a person infected with the new strain, which has around 17 potentially significant changes in its viral genetic code. Cases have been reported from Australia, Denmark and the Netherlands as well, with another aggressive strain in South Africa.
"There have been mutations (of other viruses) in the past that become the dominant variant going forward. This may just be another such variant," she said, adding, "It is unlikely that a couple of mutations in the spike protein could change the response of the immune system to the vaccine."
Dr Swaminathan said experiments to better understand the new UK strain - labelled B.1.1.7 - were taking place, but said: "These are going to take a couple of weeks to get results."
"For now, we encourage countries to do more sequencing. India has huge capacity to do whole genome sequencing (one of the keys to developing an effective vaccine). In fact, India is already contributing quite a lot to a global database that has close to 300,000 sequences," she said.
Dr Swaminathan also stressed that measures to contain the virus were the same.
"It is really important that all countries put in place measures to control the virus and bring down transmission. We know what these measures are - testing, and contact-tracing and isolation of positive cases," Dr Swaminathan said.
The mutated version of the coronavirus that was detected in southeast England in September, has quickly become the dominant strain in London and other parts of the UK, leading to surging infection rates and toughest levels, yet, of restrictions on some 18 million people.
On Monday, India, along with nearly 30 other nations, issued a temporary ban on incoming flights from the UK. The ban will start Wednesday and all passengers from the UK before then will be tested on arrival. Maharashtra has also acted, imposing a night curfew till January 5.
News of the mutation has also led to worries that the first lot of Covid vaccines could prove ineffective. However, medical experts, including Mike Ryan, the Executive Director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, say there is no evidence, at this stage, of this.
On Monday, the head of the EU's medicines regulator said the Pfizer vaccine, which has been rolled out to the public in the UK and is one of three being considered for emergency use in India, would protect against the new strain
With input from AFP