The World Health Organization has designated a new strain of COVID-19 as a “variant of interest.”
The global health agency announced in its weekly bulletin Tuesday that Mu, also known by its scientific designation B.1.621, has been detected in South America and Europe since it was first identified in Colombia in January.
The WHO said the Mu variant has several characteristics that make it more resistant to vaccines, but said more studies needed to be conducted to fully understand how it works.
The Mu variant is the fifth one designated by the WHO as a variant of interest. Four other variants have been designated as “variants of concern,” including alpha, which has been detected in 193 countries, and the more transmissible delta, which is present in 170 countries and has been linked to the current worldwide surge of new infections.
Scientists in South Africa announced earlier this week they have detected a new COVID-19 variant designated C.1.2. The variant has spread across Africa, Asia, Europe and the southern Pacific region of Oceania since it was first spotted in South Africa in May.
The variant has not been identified by the WHO as either a variant of interest or variant of concern.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on Tuesday urged Americans who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine to avoid traveling during the upcoming Labor Day holiday weekend due to a surge of new infections and deaths driven by the delta variant. The United States is averaging well over 100,000 new COVID-19 cases per day, with states like Florida, Mississippi and Washington state reporting record levels of new cases and hospitalizations.
Meanwhile, two key officials in the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s vaccine review office are leaving their posts in the coming weeks. Dr. Marion Gruber, the director of the division, is retiring in October, while her deputy, Dr. Philip Krause, will leave the following month. The retirements of Gruber and Krause come at a crucial time for the FDA, which is nearing a decision on whether to recommend COVID-19 vaccines for children under 12 years old and booster shots of the current vaccines already approved for the adult Americans.
The New York Times reports Gruber and Krause are upset over the Biden administration's recent announcement that booster shots would be offered for some Americans beginning next month, well before the FDA had time to properly review the data.
In Australia, Premier Daniel Andrews of Victoria state says authorities will gradually lift the current coronavirus restrictions once 70 percent of its adult residents have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Victoria and its capital city, Melbourne, have been under a strict lockdown since early August due to an outbreak that began back in June, but Andrews says it is now apparent that it was time to switch to a mass vaccination strategy to bring the outbreak under control.
“We were aiming to drive it down and have cases falling, it is now the advice of the experts that that is not possible, so now we have to contain the growth of cases and the speed at which they increase," Andrews told reporters. He said the state should reach 70 percent vaccination by September 23.
Victoria state posted a record 120 new cases on Wednesday, including two deaths.
(Some information for this report came from the Associated Press, Reuters and AFP.)