India COVID-19 variant: What we know so far

SINGAPORE: India is battling a deadly second wave of COVID-19, with the country reporting 2,023 deaths and more than 295,000 new infections on Wednesday (Apr 21).

Both numbers are records, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described the situation as “a storm”.

Amid the crisis, a new coronavirus variant known as B.1.617 was detected in the country, with some blaming it for the surge in COVID-19 cases.

Here’s what we know about the variant so far:

IT’S A “DOUBLE MUTANT”

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the variant emerged at the end of last year.

Described by officials as a “double mutant”, it was first reported on Mar 24, when it had been found in more than 200 samples in the hard-hit western state of Maharashtra.

Epidemiologists said the term “double mutant” refers to an entirely new variant that has the characteristics of two already identified variants. In the case of B.1.617, these are the E484Q and L452R mutations.

According to the BBC, the L452R mutation was identified in variants from California, while the E484Q mutation is similar to a mutation found in the Brazilian and South African variants.

“Double mutant is not a scientific term. It is just another mutant which seems to be unique to India,” Ramanan Laxminarayan, the founder of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in New Delhi, said in March.

The WHO on Friday said that it is monitoring the variant, and the agency’s technical lead Dr Maria Van Kerkhove described it as “concerning”.

“Having two of these mutations, which have been seen in other variants around the world, are concerning because there’s a similarity in these mutations that confer increased transmissibility, for example,” she said.

“Some of these mutations result in reduced neutralisation which may have an impact on our counter measures, including the vaccines.”

READ: India reports a record 2,023 COVID-19 deaths in a day

READ: Oxygen supplies run low as India grapples with COVID-19 ‘storm’

THERE IS A LACK OF DATA ON THE VARIANT

When the variant was first detected, health officials said that it had not been detected in large enough numbers to link it to the surge in cases in Maharashtra and other Indian states.

At the time, Laxminarayan said: “We have no evidence that these variants are more transmissible or more lethal than what we already have.”

Britain, which has detected more than 100 cases of the variant, is investigating it, however they do not have enough evidence to classify it is as a variant of concern, Susan Hopkins of Public Health England said last Sunday.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC television, Hopkins said: “We have not got enough data about this variant yet to be able to clarify whether it’s a variant of concern. We have put it as a variant under investigation.

“To escalate it up the ranking we need to know that it’s increased transmissibility, increased severity, or vaccine-evading, and we just don’t have that yet, but we’re looking at the data on a daily basis.”

READ: COVID-19 variants inciting India’s second surge, epidemiologists say

Commentary: Those new coronavirus variants sure are worrisome

COVID-19 VACCINES ARE PARTIALLY EFFECTIVE AGAINST IT

Israel, which has registered eight cases of the Indian variant, believes that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is at least partially effective against it. 

“The impression is that the Pfizer vaccine has efficacy against it, albeit a reduced efficacy,” the health ministry’s director-general, Hezi Levy, told Kan public radio on Tuesday.

Speaking at a press briefing on Tuesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “We will look very carefully at whether it shows any sign of being able to escape the vaccines or escape the effect of the vaccines, but that’s where we are at the moment.”

READ: Singapore tightens COVID-19 rules for travellers from India, cuts entry approvals for non-Singaporeans and PRs

READ: More than 50 on India flight to Hong Kong test positive for COVID-19

COUNTRIES ARE MOVING TO STOP THE SPREAD OF THE VARIANT

With concerns about the variant, and amid the broader COVID-19 situation in India, a number of countries and territories have implemented restrictions and issued travel advisories.

In Singapore, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said on Tuesday that COVID-19 border measures will be tightened for travellers from India.

From 11.59pm on Thursday, travellers from India will have to serve an additional seven days of stay-home notice at their residence following their 14-day stay-home notice at dedicated facilities.

Singapore also reduced entry approvals for non-Singapore citizens or permanent residents due to the worsening situation in India and the emergence of new virus variants, said MOH.

The United States Centers for Disease Control and Protection has said all travel should be avoided to India, while Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson cancelled an official trip to New Delhi that had been scheduled for next week, and his government added India to its travel “red list”.

Hong Kong also suspended flights from India from Tuesday, the same day that the city reported that at least 53 passengers on a flight from New Delhi tested positive for COVID-19.

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