Combination of COVID-19 mutations making targeted vaccines difficult: WHO expert Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove

The combination of COVID-19 mutations is making it more difficult to develop targeted vaccines, an infectious disease expert with the World Health Organization, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, said on Sunday.

Dr. Van Kerkhove is the WHO COVID-19 lead and an epidemiologist specializing in zoonotic diseases, or infectious diseases caused by pathogens that can jump from animals to humans.

Speaking on CBS’s Face The Nation with Margaret Brennan, she said viruses mutate all the time, and the more they spread from one person to another, the more likely they change over time.

According to her, there are currently four variants of SARS-Cov-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. One variant was first identified in the UK, one in South Africa, another in Brazil and the last one in Denmark. There might more that have not be discovered yet.

“This makes the task of containing and eliminating the disease difficult and lengthy,” Dr. Van Kerkhove, an American, said, speaking from Geneva in Switzerland where the WHO is headquartered.

According to her, “every individual must take responsibility in terms of our physical distancing, mask-wearing, avoiding crowded spaces, opening windows, sneezing into our elbow.”

“All of those measures are really critical, as well as government-led responses, all-of-society approach, where we’re conducting active case finding, where we know where the virus is,” Dr. Van Kerkhove added.

She also called for the world to vaccinate all the most vulnerable people around the world, and refused to name a specific country that has performed better than others.

The WHO expert also touched on China, where the coronavirus was first identified more than a year ago. The Chinese government has finally allowed scientists into the country more than a year after the outbreak, despite multiple requests sent to Beijing.

Dr. Van Kerkhove said the scientists, from a number of fields, are having constructive exchanges with Chinese counterparts and throughout different levels of the Chinese Centers for Disease Control.

“We’re hoping for the reports as soon as possible, and that will be made available as soon as it can be,” she said.

Kristi Pelzel is a Senior White House correspondent for Today News Africa in Washington D.C. Kristi also covers the US Department of State and the United Nations. She holds a master's degree from Georgetown University.

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