GENEVA: The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday (Nov 26) cautioned countries against hastily imposing travel restrictions linked to the new B.1.1.529 variant of COVID-19, saying they should take a "risk-based and scientific approach".
"At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against," WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a UN briefing in Geneva.
"The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures."
The WHO, which has convened an experts' meeting on Friday to evaluate whether it constitutes a variant of interest or a variant of concern, will share further guidance for governments on action they can take, he said.
It will take a few weeks to understand the variant's impact, and researchers are working to determine how transmissible it is and how it will affect therapeutics and vaccines, he added.
European and Asian countries tightened travel restrictions on Friday after the new and possibly vaccine-resistant coronavirus variant was detected in South Africa, with the EU, Britain and India among those announcing stricter border controls.
"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, an epidemiologist and WHO technical lead on COVID-19.
"This is one to watch, I would say we have concern. But I think you would want us to have concern," she told viewers of an event on social media on Thursday.
Van Kerkhove said that it was good that variants were being detected, adding: "It means that we have a system in place."
Lindmeier said that the United Nations agency's technical advisory group and other experts on virus evolution were conferring with South African researchers.
"WHO is convening a meeting ... to better understand the timeline for studies that are under way and to determine if this variant should be designated as a variant of interest or variant of concern," he said.
Nearly 100 sequences of the variant have been reported, and early analysis shows it has "a large number of mutations" requiring further study, Lindmeier said.