Explained | Indian Variant Elevated to 'Variant of Concern' by UK


Public Health England (PHE) has elevated the status of a version of the 'Indian Variant' B.1.617 of the novel coronavirus to a 'Variant of Concern' (VoC).

This comes as the number of cases linked to this variant in the UK went up to 520, from 202 a week ago.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the meantime has said that the country will have to handle the outbreak 'very carefully.'


What Prompted the Change in Status?

According to PHE, the decision was based on evidence which suggested that the Indian variant is at least as transmissible as B.1.1.7 (the Kent variant or the UK Variant).

PHE has also said that there is currently insufficient evidence to say that the variant causes more severe disease or makes the vaccines less effective. They will continue to explore this angle in laboratory settings to better understand the impact of the mutations.

Rapid Spread of the Variant Seen in the UK

A version of the Indian variant, that has now been reported from at least 21 countries, was seen in 520 cases, with half of the cases linked to travel or contact with a traveler. The predominant spread is in two areas in the country's North West and London. The UK plans to carry out large-scale testing in the areas to access the spread and contain the damage.

Dr Susan Hopkins, COVID-19 Strategic Response Director at PHE, was quoted as saying,

We are monitoring all of these variants extremely closely and have taken the decision to classify this as a Variant of Concern because the indications are that this VOC-21APR-02(B.1.617.2) is a more transmissible variant.

Other Indian variants identified as VUI-21APR-01 and VUI-21APR-03 are not being considered as VOCs as of now.

What Does 'Variant of Concern' Mean?

In a previous interview with FIT, Dr Gangandeep Kang, microbiologist with CMC Vellore, said that, “The Indian variant - B.1.617 - is a variant of interest because it has mutations that predict there may be changes in its biological behaviour. But so far, we don’t have confirmation of that yet and so it cannot yet be classified as a variant of concern.”

It's important to note that viruses mutate all the time. But when these mutations adopt significant characteristics, they are classified as - 'Variant of Interest' (VOI), 'Variant of Concern' (VOC) and 'Variant of High Consequence,' (VOHC) explains Dr Kang.

In 'VOI' you will have sequenced data that the virus may cause more infection, or escape immunity, but you need to validate the data with actual biological characteristics of the virus.

In 'VOC' not only do you have data, but also actual evidence that there is an increase in transmissibility or more severe disease, there is measurable reduction in neutralising antibodies. This classification would trigger certain public health measures.

In 'Variant of High Consequence' there is evidence that the prevention or treatment measures against the virus are not working.

At the moment, we don't have any Variants of High Consequence, but the UK/Kent Variant, Brazil Variant and the South Africa Variant have been classified as Variants of Concern by the WHO.

In another interview with FIT, Dr Rakesh Mishra, Director of the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, said that VOC have two major concerns:

“Concerns are of two types: the concern of new or worse symptoms and the concern of how well the vaccines can protect against them.”

What is the 'Indian Variant'

What has so far been colloquially referred to as the 'double mutant' in India, is actually a variant with two prominent mutations. It is formally being called B.1.617 and was first spotted in India in October, 2020.

The two most notable mutations in this variant are E484Q and L452R and these have been spotted before in California and Brazil.

Data released by Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genome Sequencing Consortia (INSACOG) has since found that B.1.617 has become the dominant virus in parts of North India and Maharashtra.

Analysis by ICMR, and Labs in the UK Say Vaccines Protect Against the Variant

While the status change by the UK is certainly concerning, experts point out that some studies done on the Indian variant seem to indicate that currently deployed vaccines work against it.

A study conducted by Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institute of Virology and Bharat Biotech, makers of India's indigenous Covaxin indicates that the vaccine is effective against B.1.617.

A separate analysis of the variant carried out in a lab in the university of Cambridge also indicates that despite the immune escaping properties of the mutations, vaccines offer adequate protection against serious disease and hospitalisation.

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