COVID-19 Mutations & Variants of Concern: All You Should Know  

“The more you limit the spread of the virus, the more you limit mutations,” says virologist Dr Jameel.

Updated
COVID-19
3 min read

On 25 March, India saw its biggest single-day jump in total infections in almost 5 months at 53,476 new coronavirus cases. Maharashtra and Gujarat saw their highest single-day spikes since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

On 24 March, the health ministry announced that genome sequencing by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) has shown variants of concern (VOCs) and a novel ‘double mutant’ variant in India.

What does this mean and should we be worried as a second wave begins to unfurl? FIT speaks to by virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University, Dr Shahid Jameel to find out more.

First, let’s break down yesterday’s news. “So far, India has done more than 1,000 viral sequences.”

The three variants of concern found are ones we have seen outside of India:

  • UK variant
  • South African variant
  • Brazil variant

Where this gets concerning, is the double mutation found. Dr Jameel explains, “The mutation called E484Q is a novel combination that has not been seen and it has been found in 15-20 percent of cases that are being sequenced.”

“It looks as if there is an Indian lineage emerging at this point.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University

Is the New Mutation Linked to the Rising Cases?

So far, “we don’t know,” says Dr Jameel. “Epidemiological correlations are ongoing to determine a link.”

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare also added that, “Though VOCs and a new double mutant variant have been found in India, these have not been detected in numbers sufficient to either establish or direct relationship or explain the rapid increase in cases in some States.”

Still, it is important to maintain COVID protocols, add experts.

Mutations Are Natural; So When Should We Worry?

Dr Jameel explains that mutations are a natural phenomena. “Some are selected as they provide some positive effect on the virus. This is what’s happening with these mutant lineages. If the mutation was detrimental to the virus we don’t see it because it will not survive.”

The health ministry said that, 5-6 percent of mutation is normal. But when it impacts public health or results in increased transmission is when it is concerning.” Since mutations are natural, tracking and tracing becomes important and that reveals more information.

‘Double Mutation’ Explained

“Once a single mutation is selected another mutation could happen in that virus, it can also become a triple virus and become a distinct lineage.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University

For example, the UK Variant has 23 mutations and different lineages. Out of these 23, 17 mutations that make a change in the protein that the virus makes. Out of these 17, 8 mutations are present in the spike protein of the virus

“The spike protein is critical for entry into the cells and binding to antibodies and the virus getting neutralised. This is a natural consequence.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University

New Mutation From Southern India

“There is another mutation emerging from South India called N443K,” says Dr Jameel. “All of these mutations are in the region of the virus surface where antibodies bind to neutralise the virus, so it will have an effect.”

How much of an effect will depend on which mutation, or rather which combination of mutations.

“Multiple mutations are a matter of concern.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University

'Virus Cannot Mutate Forever'

“After a while, these mutations become detrimental to the virus and this is natural in evolution. We are seeing this because there are over 11 million cases in India.”

“There is no cause for worry but cause for concern. Instead of worrying, the best thing we can do is follow COVID appropriate behaviour.”
Dr Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University

“The pandemic will be over soon but not yet,” adds Dr Jameel.

So mask up, maintain social distance and hand hygiene to help curb the rising cases.

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

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