FAQ: What Are the New COVID-19 Variants in India?

Here’s what we know about the variants so far

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F.A.Q
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At least five states in India – Maharashtra, Kerala, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh – are experiencing a sudden rise in COVID-19 cases, leaving experts wondering if a new variant could be behind the rise.

Fresh COVID-19 cases are showing an upward trend over the past week, with the country reporting 13,742 cases in the last 24 hours taking the overall tally to 1,10,30,176 on Wednesday, 24 February, Union Health Ministry said.

India has been recording less than 15,000 new infections daily with the toll not crossing the 200-mark over the last one month.

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

What is a virus mutation?

Mutations sound scary and ‘unnatural’ - think X-men and all the ways we use the word in pop culture. But in reality, it’s a normal and expected process by which a strain takes on new variants.

Are the new COVID-19 variants in India the same as UK and South Africa?

The Central government on Tuesday, 23 February, claimed that two new variants – N440K and E484K – were found in Maharashtra, Kerala, and Telangana.

These are different from that of the UK, South African, or Brazilian strains of the virus. Studies are underway across these states to determine if variants are behind the rise in cases.

Is the new variant causing the increase in number of cases?

The Centre has categorically said that so far no link has been established between these and the resurgence of cases in Kerala and Maharashtra.

Should we worry?

In an earlier interview with FIT, Dr Jacob John, virologist and former professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, explained that a new variant would mean we would have to be more cautious. However, we would need tests to determine the transmissibility and virulence (strength) of the new mutation before jumping to conclusions. Besides, we are still waiting on tests from NIV, Pune and ICMR to determine the link between the mutations and rising cases.

On Tuesday, 23 February, officials told IANS that the genetic diagnostic laboratories in India have detected over 24,000 mutations in the strains of SARS-CoV-2 in the last one year.  

What is Maharashtra saying about this?

Maharashtra government's Technical Advisor on COVID-19, Dr Shubhash Salunkhe explains why this number is nothing to worry about.

“Every virus, particularly pandemic prone viruses have their mutations – this is nothing unusual. Even our Indian indigenous virus has many mutations – virologists say we’ve had up to 3-4,000 mutations and this will go on. Some will increase the transmissibility, some the virulence.” 
Dr Shubhash Salunkhe 

Dr Salunkhe added that he was seeing increasing transmissibility but the death rate was not affected significantly. Still, these mutations suggest we cannot keep our guard down and must mask up, maintain distance, and hand hygiene.

What are the other variants found in India?

  • Six cases from the variant in South Africa
  • One case from the Brazil variant
  • 187 from the UK variant

When will we know more about these variants?

There is no clarity on this yet. Watch out this space for more updates.

(This was first published on FIT and has been republished with permission.)

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