The World Health Organization's (WHO) Regional Director for Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, on Saturday calmed concerns that the so-called "cluster 5" mutation of mink-related coronavirus found in Denmark might affect vaccine development.
"It is a realistic question to ask whether 'cluster 5' can harm a vaccine. Right now, there is no reason to say that it will harm the development of a vaccine. But it needs to be investigated. Because it's a new combination. 'Cluster 5' is a new element," Kluge said at a hastily-convened press briefing at the Danish health ministry on Saturday.
On Friday, experts from the Geneva-based WHO also said that there is no evidence at the moment that the mutation of SARS-CoV-2 virus in minks in Denmark will affect the efficacy of future vaccines for COVID-19.
It's "too early to jump to conclusions as to the implications of what these specific mutations," either for transmission, the severity of COVID-19 clinical presentation, the immune response, or potential vaccine efficacy, WHO Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan said at a press briefing, adding that "we need to wait and see what the implications are."
On Nov. 5, health authorities in Denmark reported 12 human cases of COVID-19 caused by a specific mink-associated variant strain of the SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 pandemic.
All 12 cases live in North Jutland and became unwell in September. Eight had a link to the mink farming industry and four cases were from the local community, according to Saturday's statement by WHO Europe.
Since June 2020, 214 human cases of COVID-19 have been identified in Denmark with SARS-CoV-2 variants associated with farmed minks, including 12 cases with a unique variant.
This particular variant strain displays a combination of mutations not previously documented. Laboratory tests conducted in Denmark indicate that this strain may have reduced response to neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. These findings are preliminary and further studies and international collaboration are ongoing to confirm them, said WHO Europe in the statement.
Mink farms in several European countries have shown that the virus can move between mink and human. "It is always a concern when a virus moves from animals to humans as genetic changes can happen as it moves back and forth," it said.
WHO has been following genetic changes in the COVID-19 virus since the start of the pandemic through a dedicated COVID-19 virology working group, according to WHO Europe.
Kluge also supported the Danish government's decision to kill all minks in the country as a precautionary measure, saying that "Better to be on the safe side than regret it afterward."
He also welcomed Denmark's plan to test up to 280,000 Danish citizens in infected North Jutland and praised the government for sharing knowledge about the new mink mutation.
"It is important that data is shared in Europe because there are so many uncertainties," he said.
Denmark reported 1,050 COVID-19 infections in a 24-hour span, with the total number of confirmed infections now standing at 54,230, while the number of deaths has risen by four to 187, according to Saturday's update by the Danish Statens Serum Institute (SSI).
As the world is struggling to contain the pandemic, countries including France, China, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are racing to find a vaccine.
According to the website of the World Health Organization, as of Nov. 3, there were 202 COVID-19 candidate vaccines being developed worldwide, and 47 of them were in clinical trials.