Six New Cases of UK Variant Found in India, What Does This Mean?  

For now, experts suggest caution and not panic.

5 min read
Are virus mutations normal? Will the new variant discovered in the UK make our current vaccines redundant?

On Tuesday, 29 December, the government said that six people, who had returned from the United Kingdom to India, have been found to be positive with the new UK coronavirus variant genome.

Samples of three UK returnees were tested and found positive for the new UK strain in NIMHANS, Bengaluru, two in Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, and one in National Institute of Virology, Pune, the Health Ministry said.

"All these persons have been kept in single-room isolation in designated healthcare facilities by respective state governments. Their close contacts have also been put under quarantine. Comprehensive contact tracing has been initiated for co-travellers, family contacts and others. Genome sequencing on other specimens is going on," the government said in a release.

Just as the year ends, the new UK variant sent shocks around the world as it is potentially more contagious. As news of six people testing positive comes in, should India be worried?

Should You Worry?

Dr Jacob T John, a veteran virologist had told FIT in an interview, “The novel coronavirus is a single-stranded RNA virus. Mutating is the rule for such viruses, not the exception.”

A mutation refers to a change in a virus’ genetic sequence. It is important to remember that viruses mutate all the time. The error-prone replication process makes these mutations a part of the virus’ life cycle and evolution.

According to a BBC report, three factors are causing concern over the new variant of COVID-19:

  • It is said to spread faster than the other versions – 70 percent more infectious
  • It is the most common version of the virus in the UK
  • There have been changes to the spike protein of the virus, which plays a key role in unlocking the doorway to the body's cells

Speaking to FIT, Dr Shahid Jameel, Virologist and Director, Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, said,

“Yes, it is a new variant that has emerged, which seems to be spreading quite fast in the UK and a few other European countries, Australia and South Africa. We should be concerned, but we should not worried.”
Dr Shahid Jameel

This isn’t the first time that changes in the spike region of the virus have been observed. What’s different here is the rising prevalence of this variant in the UK – even though we do not have sufficient data to suggest the mutation spreads faster or affects disease severity. The fear surrounding the new variant is based on preliminary data and modelling.

Importantly, the higher prevalence of a variant among a set of people may not have to do with its strength or virulence, but could just be a function of other factors such as human behaviour, as was observed in South Africa.

Definite lab experiments would be needed to determine the transmissibility of the new variant and the risks (if any) it poses. For now, experts believe there is good reason to be cautious.

What does this mean for us? Be cautious as experts have advised, but don’t panic.

Is this Variant More Dangerous?

In a report by The Guardian, chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty stated clearly that there was no evidence to date that this variant alters disease severity, either in terms of mortality or the seriousness of the cases of COVID-19 for those infected. Investigation on these factors is still ongoing.

However, the increase in the rate of transmission means more people could get infected than before and this leads to an added burden on an already strained healthcare system, with more people needing hospital treatment.

Susan Hopkins, joint medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace and Public Health England, said,

“There is currently no evidence that this strain causes more severe illness, although it is being detected in a wide geography, especially where there are increased cases being detected.”
Susan Hopkins

The variants of the novel coronavirus are genetically similar to each other, which is why scientists do not expect these to have a major impact on their ability to cause more severe illness than what is known, Prof Arindam Maitra of the National Institute of Biomedical Genomics told The Indian Express.

Will the Vaccines Being Developed Work Against This Variant?

The news of the new variant is still emerging, but so far, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock believes the regular COVID vaccines would still be useful.

He said there was “nothing to suggest” it caused worse disease or that vaccines would no longer work.

The new variant has mutations to the spike protein that leading vaccine candidates are targeting. However, vaccines produce antibodies against many regions in the spike protein, so it’s unlikely that this change would make the vaccine less effective.

Sharon Peacock, director of COG-UK, told the Science Media Centre briefing, “With this variant, there is no evidence that it will evade the vaccination or a human immune response. But if there is an instance of vaccine failure or reinfection then that case should be treated as high priority for genetic sequencing.”

In conversation with FIT, Dr Jameel said,

“The good news is that these mutations are not going to affect the vaccines that are being developed. But it comes as a note of caution, because viruses are continuously mutating, and when there is a selection pressure on viruses from the vaccines, we may also see other variants emerging in the future that may escape vaccines. The one identified in the UK is not one such variant.”
Dr Shahid Jameel

“But this does suggest that this is a possibility in the future, and to detect these mutations in time, surveillance would have to be sped up. Most importantly, every other precaution that we have been taking before the vaccine should still be followed,” he added.

Kartik Chandran, a virologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, spoke to The New York Times about the body’s immune system, and how its defences make for a more formidable adversary than the mutating virus. “The fact is that you have a thousand big guns pointed at the virus. No matter how the virus twists and weaves, it’s not that easy to find a genetic solution that can really combat all these different antibody specificities, not to mention the other arms of the immune response.”

In general, it is hard for viruses to escape from the immune system. Even the ones that are able to do this quicker, like influenza, would need five to seven years.

But these are things we are yet to know about the novel coronavirus, which is why constant tracking of the virus and its mutations remains crucial in our fight against the pandemic and the final effectiveness of vaccines.

Fortunately, the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine candidates is easier to update than the ways in which conventional vaccines are made. Still, it would probably be years before this would be needed, if at all.

“These are useful pokes for scientists and governments to get systems in place — now, before we might need them, especially as we start vaccinating people,” Dr Emma Hodcroft, a molecular epidemiologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland, told the NYT. “But the public should not necessarily be panicking.”

(The article was first published in FIT and has been republished with permission)

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