WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier confirmed the closed-door meeting in Geneva, saying that participants met to designate the COVID-19 strain, known as B.1.1.529, as either a variant of concern or interest.
Officials, he said, should take a “risk-based and scientific approach” amid countries’ moves to impose new travel restrictions on African countries. European Union countries and the United Kingdom this week reacted swiftly, setting up new travel curbs to South Africa and nearby countries.
“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing in Geneva, Reuters reported. “The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”
It would take weeks to determine whether the new variant, which may receive a Greek alphabet letter designation like “Delta” or “Alpha,” is highly transmissible or not, Lindmeier said.
“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Maria van Kerkhove, who works as an epidemiologist for WHO on COVID-19.
But the new variant, she argued Thursday, “is one to watch, I would say we have concern. But I think you would want us to have concern.”
Concerns were prompted due to a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in South Africa that officials blamed on the variant. Joe Phaahla, South Africa’s minister of health, told the BBC that the strain appears to be highly transmissible among younger people.
“This variant did surprise us,” Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Center for South Africa’s Epidemic Response and Innovation, was quoted by the outlet as saying. “It has a big jump on evolution [and] many more mutations that we expected.”
Researchers cited by Nature magazine said the variant was discovered in the southern African nation of Botswana earlier in November.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told reporters Thursday that the variant may be “more transmissible” than the Delta variant, adding that current vaccines “may be less effective” against the strain.
Other than a ban on travel to South Africa, the UK halted travel to Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe on Friday.