The faster-spreading UK coronavirus variant has now been found in at least 60 countries, 10 more compared with a week ago, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.
With the global death toll now well past two million, and new variants of the virus causing deep concern, countries across the world are grappling with how to slow infections until vaccines become widely available.
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The South African strain, 501Y.V2, which like the United Kingdom one is believed to be more infectious but does not appear deadlier, has now been reported in 23 countries and territories, the WHO said in its weekly update.
It added the number of new deaths climbed to a record high of 93,000 over the previous seven days, with 4.7 million new cases over the same period.
The UK strain, first detected in mid-December, is thought by the WHO to be between 50-70 percent more infectious than the original.
The strains share a common mutation, which scientists call N501Y. This is a slight alteration on one spot of the spike protein that coats the virus. That change is believed to be the reason these strains can spread so easily.
Most of the vaccines being rolled out around the world train the body to recognise that spike protein and fight it. Pfizer and German partner BioNTech have said their vaccines are effective against the mutation found on the British virus variant.
The arrival of mass vaccination campaigns in the United States and Europe had brought hope that the end of the pandemic was in sight.
The European Union said on Tuesday it was aiming to inoculate 70 percent of its adult population before the end of August. EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement meeting that goal within the next four months could be “a turning point in our fight against this virus”.
But many EU countries, and other nations including India and Russia, have struggled to get their inoculation programmes off the ground.
The US remains the world’s worst outbreak in overall numbers. On Tuesday, as US President-elect Joe Biden prepared to settle into the White House, the country reached a grim milestone reporting 400,000 deaths. Biden has already made clear he would be taking no chances following his inauguration on Wednesday.
Recent days have also seen a renewed focus on the initial outbreak a year ago, with China defending its handling of the virus after independent experts criticised the speed of its response.
The WHO’s measures at the early stage of the pandemic were also under the independent panel’s scrutiny with experts questioning why the UN health agency did not convene an emergency committee earlier, and why it failed to label the outbreak a pandemic until early March 2020.