Health authorities in Vietnam appear to have identified a potential new variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The variant has been described as a mixture between the Alpha variant and the Delta variant, as per the new World Health Organization (WHO) naming convention. These two variants were first identified in the UK and India, respectively.
“Vietnam has uncovered a new COVID-19 variant combining characteristics of the two existing variants first found in India and the UK,” health minister Nguyen Thanh Long said on Saturday during a government meeting, as reported by Reuters. “That the new one is an Indian variant with mutations that originally belong to the UK variant is very dangerous.”
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, stresses that the new variant is the result of a single change in the genetic code of the Delta variant, which in itself had mutations previously seen in the Alpha variant, rather than a hybrid.
“We know that the B1617.2, the Delta variant, does have increased transmissibility, which means it can spread easier between people. It has to do with the mutations that are identified in allowing the virus to adhere to the cell and infect the cell more easily,” Dr Van Kerkhove stated during a press briefing. “What, I think, it’s important to remember is that all of these variants are combinations of mutations. So, this has been reported as a hybrid, but in fact, what it is, is this one mutation, the Delta variant with an additional deletion.”
Such mutations are expected to happen given the fact that more than 170 million people have now developed COVID-19. Surveilling possible dangerous variations is the key to continuing the fight against this disease. Currently, all diagnostics, therapies, and approved vaccines are effective against the four known variants of concern, but the longer the pandemic continues the higher the chance of a variant that can bypass our medical interventions.
The WHO continues to stress the importance of equitable access to vaccines across the world, and public health and social measures to reduce transmission and reporting of variants. The WHO has praised Vietnam's monitoring and reporting of the possible new variant. That being said, before a new variant is confirmed it needs further verification. Recently, reports of a new variant in Nepal have arisen but the WHO has not confirmed it.
Over the last year, Vietnam has been extremely effective in keeping the pandemic under control. Thanks to effective public health measures and support for isolating people, the country has had, at the time of writing, 7,972 cases and 49 deaths out of a population of 96.5 million people. The number of cases has increased over the month of May 2021, likely due to the new variant.