The Health Ministry has termed Delta plus variant of COVID-19 as a variant of concern. States of Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh have been asked to take immediate steps to contain the spread, increasing testing and vaccination in areas that are seeing a rise in number of cases.
As per the statement, the ministry has also asked for increasing genomic surveillance of the virus in these areas. INSACOG (India’s Genome Sequence Consortia) has said that the Delta Plus variant has increased risk of transmissibility, stronger binding to receptors of lung cells and reduced monoclonal antibody response.
On 21 June, it was reported that nearly 20 samples of COVID positive tests were identified as cases of this delta plus variant, of which 8 were found in Maharashtra.
What do we know about the Delta plus variant? Why does it have health experts concerned? FIT answers your FAQs.
First, here's a quick look at some key points to know about the Delta Plus variant:
Delta plus is a mutated version of the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant, first identified in India.
The scientific name of the variant is AY.1 variant
It is a result of the K417N spike mutation on the delta variant.
It is has been declared a 'variant of concern' in India.
The variant has been found in UK, Nepal, and a few cases in India.
Around 20 cases of the variant have been Identified in India as of 21 June.
It is not clear yet if the variant is more infectious, or will cause more severe illness as compared to the Delta variant.
Experts are also concerned about the variant's possible ability to evade monoclonal antibody treatments.
What is the Delta plus variant?
The Delta plus variant refers to a mutation found on the B.1.617.2 variant of the SARS CoV2 virus (also called the Delta variant) which was first identified in India.
The mutation is the result of the Delta variant acquiring the spike protein mutation K417N to form what is scientifically known as the AY.1 variant.
According to a study conducted by Public Health England, most of the cases were identified in younger people, with only two cases in those 60 or over.
When was it first identified?
The variant was first noticed in Europe in March, and has been under surveillance since, but has only come into public attention in June.
The Public Health England (PHE) report, published on 7 June, found 63 genomes of the Delta variant with the K417N mutation have been identified on the GISAID (a global science initiative that provides genomic data of influenza viruses).
At the time of the report, 36 cases of the variant were identified in England. The variant has also been identified in Nepal.
How many cases have been identified in India?
On 7 June, only 6 cases of the variant had been identified in India.
But as of 21 June, this number has since grown to 20 cases, of which 8 have been discovered in Maharashtra, reported Times of India.
The samples have been sent for genome sequencing to determine if the virus is dominant or simply scattered.
What do we know about the cases in Maharashtra?
5 of the 8 cases were identified in the Ratnagiri district.
The findings are a result of an MoU that the Maharashtra government signed with the CSIR's Institute of Genomics & Integrative Biology in April.
"CSIR-IGIB has prepared a report based on samples collected of Covid positive patients from all districts of the state... The contents of the report will be discussed in a meeting to be held on Monday and inferences will be drawn...," the state health minister, Rajesh Tope was quoted by Hindistan Times.
How does it compare to the Delta variant? Is it more dangerous?
Mutations in viruses are normal in nature, so why is this mutation concerning experts?
The main reason for the concerns is that it is a mutation of the Delta variant that is thought to be behind the devastating impact of the second wave.
The worry is that this variant may turn out to be more infectious than the Delta variant–known for being far more infectious than the original strain, and trigger an impending third wave.
Whether the variant is more transmissible or virulent than the Delta variant, "We do not know at this moment," said Dr V K Paul.
"We need to monitor it through The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) in order to assess and detect its potential presence and growth in our country. This is the way forward in relation to the virus."Dr V K Paul, chairman of the COVID-19 task Force in India
Are the COVID vaccines affective against the Delta plus variant?
Experts have expressed concerns regarding the variant's ability to evade the COVID vaccines.
Speaking to India Today, eminent virologist Dr Shahid Jameel brought up this fear, explaining that the mutation (K417N) found on the Delta plus variant was also discovered in the Beta variant first identified in South Africa.
Both these original variants are known to make the COVID vaccines less effective, and the fear is that this characteristic may have been carried onto the Delta plus variant as well.
“It’s well-established that the Beta variant of concern evades vaccines much better than the Alpha variant or even the Delta variant,” he was quoted by India Today.
Anurag Agarwal, CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB) Director and pulmonologist, told news agency PTI, that tests will have to be conducted on fully vaccinated people to determine if there is a notable escape from the immune response elicited by them.
Is the variant resistant to antibody cocktail COVID-19 treatments?
"As per data available in the public domain, this variant nullifies the use of monoclonal antibody. We will scientifically study and learn more about this variant," said Dr V K Paul.
The monoclonal antibodies in question, Casirivimab and Imdevimab, are part of the antibody cocktail COVID treatment launched by Roche and Cipla.
This treatment was given emergency use authorisation by India's Central Drugs Standards Control Organisation (CDSCO) on 3 May, and the first batch was launched in the market on 24 May at the cost of Rs 59,750 per dose.
To what extent the variant is resistant to the treatment remains to be seen.
(Written with inputs from NDTV, Times of India, Hindustan Times and IANS.)