Strain infectious, but not more lethal: Govt

The new variant of the coronavirus is more transmissible but does not appear to lead to higher mortality or hospitalisation and is unlikely to make the current class of vaccines ineffective, top Indian government officials said on Tuesday, citing the information available till now on a mutation that was first spotted in the UK and has since triggered a global alarm.

Union health secretary Rajesh Bhushan and Niti Aayog member (Health) VK Paul said India has stepped up genomic surveillance in order to detect if anyone has the new mutation in the country, with a particular focus on people who arrived from Britain in the past month. At least 21 people in five cities, including five at Delhi airport, tested positive for Covid-19 after landing from the UK on Tuesday. Their samples will now be sent for genomic sequencing.

To be sure, information is still being gleaned about the new mutation and any conclusion, either on its effects or its possible resistance to vaccines, cannot be made with any certainty at this stage.

“The new strain has 17 changes and one of them, N501Y, is of the area which instructs the spike protein, the part that the viruses uses to enter cells. Because of this, it appears that the strain’s tendency to enter cells is higher… Does this make the disease severe? It does not seem to. Neither does it appear to increase the chances of death or hospitalisation,” Paul said.

But, citing data discussions with experts, Paul said the development was worrying and that the government is vigilant since the new variant has a tendency to infect more people. Accordingly, the government will expedite genetic sequencing of all virus samples received at Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Department of Biotechnology (DBT) laboratories.

“Is it a reason for panic? No. Is it something we should be vigilant about? Certainly,” he said, while adding that current evidence also suggests that the vaccines that have been developed and are being tested are unlikely to become obsolete due to these mutations. “All vaccines developed till now will work for this variant too.”

The Union government also announced a new set of guidelines to trace and survey people who returned from the UK in the past month, advising states to separately quarantine them at institutional facilities if any of them develop symptoms. All such symptomatic people will be tested and if positive, the samples will be sent to genetic analysis to check for the B.1.1.7, the strain found in the UK.

The same genetic sequencing protocol will apply for samples of those who tested positive upon arrival on Tuesday, the last day for flights to and from UK before an embargo comes into force till December 31. In all, 22 people were found with the virus in five cities: eight (including a crew member) in Amritsar, six in Delhi, four in Ahmedabad, three in Kolkata and one in Chennai. According to the protocol, people sitting in the same row and up to three rows in front or behind any of the infected patients will be traced and quarantined with a test 5-10 days later.

Experts said that the new variant may already be in India. “The possibility that it hasn’t arrived in India is low,” said Dr Anurag Agarwal, director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), which is one of the labs that has been sequencing Sars-CoV-2 genomes. He explained that the virus has been found to be more transmissible but the transmission can happen only if people are not wearing masks. If precautions are not followed, the new variant may lead to super-spreading events, he added. “It is likely that the new variant may have already come to India, you will find it only if you are looking for it. This is the reason why we need to scale up the number of genomic sequencing that we are doing. India has the second highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world and it is likely that some variant like it might have generated within the country too,” said Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University.

Bhushan also spoke on the infection trends in India during Tuesday’s briefing. “Countries like the US, Brazil, the UK, Russia and Germany are showing new peaks in Covid cases. In comparison, India’s trajectory has shown a sustained decline in Covid-19 cases since mid-September,” he said. Bhushan on Monday wrote to the civil aviation ministry, citing recommendations from the group of experts who reviewed the information released from the UK.

Experts from the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium on Saturday said the new variant is significant because it now “accounts for an increasing proportion of cases in parts of England”, “has an unusually large number of genetic changes, particularly in the spike protein”, and the mutations “have potential biological effects”. Shortly after, UK PM Boris Johnson said the variant could be up to 70% more transmissible.

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