Lack of data, research and limited genome sequencing in India mean that the exact damage of the new variant is yet to be determined
Apart from carelessness and a serious lapse in following COVID-19 protocols by the general public and political leaders, a new variant i.e a double mutation of the virus in India is suspected to be behind the deadly resurgence of cases which has led to higher fatalities. To make matters worse, the double mutation seems to have jumped to 10 countries so far including Australia, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Namibia, New Zealand, Singapore, the U.K. and the U.S.,
What Is The New Variant and How Did The Virus Mutate?
The new variant, called B.1.617, was initially detected in Maharashtra with a combination of two mutations — the E484Q and L452R. It was first reported late last year by a scientist in India and more details were presented before the World Health Organisation on Monday.
The mutation was found to be similar to mutations detected in Britain and South Africa, and the US’s California earlier. The difference was the Indian variant had two simultaneous mutations mimicking British and South African variants on one hand, and the Californian version on the other. The two mutations it carries are called E484Q and L452R. E484Q is similar to the British and South African variants. L452R is similar to the Californian variant.
As far as the mutation is concerned, viruses mutate all the time, as part of evolutionary biology. Some mutations weaken the virus while others may make it stronger, enabling it to spread faster and cause more damage.
Research On For Double Mutant & The Indian Government’s Response
The Union Health Ministry first acknowledged the presence of a double mutation in March but said it’s “not a cause to create panic”. The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) HAS has taken up the task of decoding whether the new double variant-B.1.617- is driving the second wave. It is also a part of INSACOG, launched by the government in December last year which is a consortium of 10 labs that was formed to monitor the genomic variations in the SARS-CoV-2 on a regular basis through a multi-laboratory network.
Has The Damage Of The Mutant Been Ascertained?
Unfortunately, not as of now. Lack of data, research and limited genome sequencing mean that the exact damage is yet to be determined. Although a large number of voices in the medical fraternity are inclined to conclude that it is the new variant indeed that’s leading to the monstrous rise in COVID-19 cases
India’s infrastructure for genome sequencing, sadly, has been very limited. Labs like National Institute of Virology (NIV) Pune have had to do bulk of the genome sequencing. On the basis of genome sequencing of 361 samples by NIV , it is estimated that little over 60 percent of the Covid-19 cases in the second wave in Maharashtra is attributed to the double mutant variant.
Since Maharashtra is one of the biggest destinations for migrant workers from across the country, the double mutant variant is expected to have reached many other states. At least 8-10 states are estimated to have seen a rise in cases due to the double mutant variant of SARS-CoV-2. But there is not enough data yet.
How Have Other Countries Reacted To This Development?
This variant has been detected in at least 10 other countries, including the U.S., the U.K, Australia and New Zealand, according to the situation report on outbreak.info.
As of April 16, 408 sequences in the B.1.617 lineage have been detected of which 265 were found in India, the report shows. A surveillance report by the U.K. government said it has found 77 cases in England and Scotland so far, designating it as a “Variant Under Investigation.”
The B.1.167 "double mutant", first detected in India, is now the fastest growing variant in the UK.
The UK has these powerful data because of its amazing sequencing effort. India must ramp up its genomic surveillance at state and district levels, to outpace new variants. https://t.co/tzk5iw0bM4
— Mukund Thattai (@thattai) April 19, 2021
New Zealand has temporarily suspended arrivals of its citizens and residents from India due to the spike in the number returning with Covid. Brazil was also shunned as a Covid superspreader by its neighbors who were nervous about the virus strain next door.
What Effect Will This Have On Vaccines?
It is not concretely known whether the existing vaccines can work against the double mutant variant of SARS-CoV-2. Many health experts suspect the variant’s ability to evade the immune system could provide it a security cover against the existing vaccines.
Some other experts, however, differ saying the existing vaccines are not providing protection against infection. These vaccines provide protection against the severity of Covid-19 illness. This makes the existing vaccines capable of reducing serious complications of Covid-19, the need of hospitalization, and mortality. Though data is lacking, vaccines continue to be the best bet against Covid-19, experts say.
We should all be worried for India 🇮🇳 for many reasons even if not in India:
—Breeding ground for more variants
— Eric Feigl-Ding (@DrEricDing) April 10, 2021
India’s second wave — given its size and rapid pace — will worry other nations that have just about managed their own outbreaks after weeks of economy-devastating lockdowns. It recorded the highest spike of COVID-19 cases with 2,73,810 infections and 1619 deaths in the last 24 hours.