At least three coronavirus variants circulating around the world right now are being blamed for fueling a global surge in COVID cases.
The latest variant was linked to Brazil after Japan’s health ministry this week said it had detected a new variant in four travelers coming from Brazil’s Amazonas state.
This follows two other variants — one detected in the United Kingdom, and the other in South Africa. All three variants share certain mutations and are thought to be more transmissible than other variants.
Several European countries are responding to the discovery by imposing new restrictions.
The UK announced Wednesday it will ban all travel from South America and Portugal to try and stop the spread of the Brazil variant.
France tightened a nationwide 6 p.m. curfew, as health authorities say up to 300 new cases of the UK variant are being registered each day.
Germany announced this week it would require travelers from high risk areas outside of Germany to provide a negative COVID test. On Thursday, the head of Germany’s RKI public health institute warned people against traveling, pointing out that all cases of the new variants have been related to travel.
On Thursday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that a planned meeting discussing further measures with the leaders of Germany’s 16 federal states could be moved up to next week due to the threat poised by the new variants.
Professor Peter Kremsner from the German Center for Infection Research said that the UK variant looks like it may become dominant in the UK, and over the next two weeks, it will become clear how quickly it may take over in continental Europe.
“The good thing about this so-called British variant is that it does not look at all to be more lethal or more pathogenic,” he told DW.
He also said there was “good evidence” to suggest that the existing vaccine were “very, very likely” to do its job against new coronavirus variants.
“I very much hope that in spring a lot is achieved and then summer we can more and more come back to normal life,” he added.
Klaus Cichutek, president of Germany’s Paul-Ehrlich-Institute (PEI), which is responsible for regulating and approving medicine in Germany, told DW that the data on the effectiveness of the vaccines is reason for optimism.
“We have two very good licensed vaccines at hand and they have been assessed under the usual circumstances with the usual care,” Cichutek said. “So everything looks fine at the moment.” However, the researcher warned that more info is needed to prove how long vaccines can provide protection.
“I believe that these vaccine protections will last for a while, but we have to wait for additional data,” he said, adding that preliminary data shows that immunity doesn’t disappear quickly. “That’s very good news,” said the biochemist.
The PEI has also said it expects the current vaccines to be effective against the new coronavirus variants.
At the same time, supply and distribution of vaccines present major logistical obstacles. In the race against a more transmissible COVID, speeding up vaccinations has become a crucial challenge for public health officials around the world.
Germany’s vaccination campaign has been criticized for being too slow and undersupplied. However, with Moderna’s vaccine added to Germany’s supply this week, and BioNTech-Pfizer announcing an increased production target of 1.3 billion doses, the German Health Minister Jens Spahn said Thursday that Germany will have the pandemic under control by the end of the year.
Spahn also announced that 1% the German population, around 840,000 people, have now received the COVID vaccine.
COVID vaccines likely effective against new variants, say health experts The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Deutsche Welle.