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Covid-19 variants spreading rapidly across the world: WHO

British variant has spread to 70 nations, South African variant has emerged in 31

GENEVA New Covid-19 variants that make the virus more contagious and could render vaccine and antibody protection less effective have spread rapidly across dozens of countries, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Wednesday.

In its latest epidemiological update, the UN health agency said the more contagious Covid-19 variant first spotted in Britain had by Jan 25 spread to 70 countries across all regions of the world.

That variant, known as VOC 202012/01 or B117 and has been proven to transmit more easily than previous variants of the virus, had thus spread to 10 more countries over the past week, the WHO said.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week also warned that fresh studies had indicated the strain could be more deadly, but the WHO stressed on Wednesday that those "results are preliminary, and more analyses are required to further corroborate these findings".

The WHO also said the South African variant had now spread to 31 countries, eight more than a week ago. Studies have indicated that this variant "is less susceptible to antibody neutralisation", WHO said.

This has raised concerns the variant poses a heightened risk of reinfection, and also could hamper the effectiveness of the growing number of Covid-19 vaccines.

The WHO said more studies were needed, but stressed that observational studies in South Africa did not indicate an increased risk of reinfection.

MORE CONTAGIOUS

The WHO said a third variant of the virus, first discovered in Brazil, was now in eight countries, up from just two a week ago.

That variant, called P1, has raised similar concerns it could be more contagious or cause more severe disease.

"Further studies are needed to assess if there are changes in transmissibility, severity or antibody neutralising activity as a result of these new variants," the WHO said.

As daily global deaths from the disease topped 18,000 for the first time and with the new variants spreading rapidly around the globe, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19, said the mutations did not imply defeat.

"Does it mean we're losing this war? No," she told a WHO live social media event.

"We are in the fight of our lives. We have to make sure that we're not fighting each other; that we're fighting the virus... the variants included.

"We can conquer this virus - and we will conquer this virus."

All variants and strains included, WHO said 4.1 million cases were registered around the world over the past week, and some 96,000 deaths.

While the number of deaths was similar to the previous week, the new case number marked a 15 per cent decline week on week.

It was the second consecutive week that new case numbers declined, after peaking in the first week of January.

The global decline was largely driven by relative reductions in cases in some countries that have seen the highest numbers in recent months, WHO said, including in the US - the country hardest hit by the pandemic All regions saw new case numbers come down or remain flat. - AFP

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