COVID Pandemic 'Not Necessarily the Big One' Says WHO's Mike Ryan As New Strains Spread

A World Health Organization (WHO) expert has warned the COVID pandemic has been "very severe" but is "not necessarily the big one" when it comes to future outbreaks of infectious diseases.

Dr. Mike Ryan, the head of the WHO emergencies program, made the comments during a media briefing on Monday. His remarks came amid concern about how two new strains of COVID detected in the U.K. and South Africa, named B.1.1.7 and 501.V2 respectively, may affect the course of the pandemic that has already seen over 81.2 million people infected and killed over 1.7 million.

Both variants of COVID contain what is known as the N501Y mutation, and are thought to be better at spreading than past forms.

Ryan said: "This pandemic has been very severe, has spread around the world extremely quickly, it has affected every corner of this planet. But this is not necessarily the big one."

"This virus is very transmissible... and it kills people and it has deprived so many people of loved ones. But its current case fatality is reasonably low in comparison to other emerging diseases. This is a wake-up call."

Ryan went on: "From our perspective the planet is fragile. We live in an increasingly complex global society. These threats will continue. If there's one thing we need to take from this pandemic with all of the tragedy and loss is that we need to get our act together, we need to get ready for something that may even be more severe in future. In this we must honor those we've lost by getting better at what we do every day."

His comments came at a turning point in the pandemic, as vaccines are gradually being rolled out but countries face the prospect of dealing with the new, potentially more transmissible strains of the virus.

Over a dozen countries have reported COVID cases caused by the U.K. variant, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

On Tuesday, India's health ministry said six people who had travelled from the U.K. were carrying the B.1.1.7 variant and were being quarantined.

The strain from South Africa was detected in Australia for the first time in an individual who was quarantined in a hotel and has since been taken to hospital, according to Queensland health minister Yvette D'Ath. Parts of the virus were also found in five wastewater facilities in Brisbane, she said.

On Monday, Japan's health ministry confirmed it had found the variant from South Africa in a woman in her 30s who arrived in the country on December 19. B.1.1.7 has also been found in the U.K. and Finland.

Neither strain has been detected in the U.S., but last week the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the U.K. variant "could already be in the United States without having been detected."

Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, the medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, told CNBC on Monday the variant may not have been picked up in the U.S. due to testing capacity.

"To find that strain, what we need to do is to take a percentage of the samples that are diagnosed and do deep genetic analysis, and [in] the U.S., our capacity hasn't been spectacular," she said.

Bhadelia cited a CDC report from December 22 that said the genetic make-up of around 51,000 of the 17 million U.S. cases had been examined.

"If the strain is here, we might just be missing it because the holes in our net are too wide," said Bhadelia.

She said it is therefore important to continue with public health measures that prevent the spread of COVID. The CDC advises people take measures including washing their hands often, staying 6 feet away from people outside of their household, and wearing a mask in public settings particularly when it is difficult to socially distance.

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A stock image features an illustration of COVID. A WHO expert has said the COVID pandemic may be followed by a worse outbreak. Getty Images