The World Health Organization cautioned against excessive alarm over a new, highly infectious variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in Britain, saying this was a normal part of a pandemic’s evolution. The WHO was joined other prominent public health officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci in the U.S., in warning that the reaction of many countries in closing border to the UK and the EU was “excessive and unwarranted.”
By early Tuesday morning, more than 30 countries had ordered a halt to all flights, incoming and outgoing, to the UK with some of them also banning travel to and from all EU countries where the version of the virus has been detected. Even countries not closing their borders to British travel added new quarantine and testing requirements for travelers arriving from the UK.
“We have to find a balance. It’s very important to have transparency, it’s very important to tell the public the way it is, but it’s also important to get across that this is a normal part of virus evolution,” WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan told an online briefing.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, member of the White House committee guiding the Covid response in the U.S., recommended against ending travel to the UK. “We need to follow this new variant carefully but we shouldn’t overreact,” he said. “What we know so far is really not that alarming so I do not recommend drastic actions regarding such issues as travel.”
He added that mutations of any virus affecting the human population are part of a natural process and what has been discovered in Britain is no different. “We are watching carefully but see no need for action at this time.”
The U.S. Surgeon General’s office said Monday afternoon that there would be no restrictions on travel to the UK.
WHO officials even put a positive light on the discovery of the new strains that prompted a slew of alarmed countries to impose travel restrictions on Britain and South Africa, saying new tools to track the virus were working.
Citing data from Britain, WHO officials said they had no evidence that the variant made people sicker or was more deadly than existing strains of Covid-19, although it did seem to spread more easily.
Countries imposing travel curbs were acting out of an abundance of caution while they assess risks, Ryan said, adding: “That is prudent. But it is also important that everyone recognizes that this happens, these variants occur.”
WHO officials said coronavirus mutations had so far been much slower than with influenza and that even the new U.K. variant remained much less transmissible than other diseases like mumps. They said vaccines developed to combat Covid-19 should handle the new variants as well, although checks were under way to ensure this was the case.
The WHO said it expects to get more detail within days or weeks on the potential impact of the highly transmissible new coronavirus strain.