Variants of Concern & a Novel Variant Found in India: Heath Min

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“Genome sequencing by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) has shown variants of concern (VOCs) and a novel variant in India,” announced the Health Ministry today.

VOCs have been found in 18 states and these are the same as those detected outside of India. This means that they are known VOCs such as the UK variant, the South African variant and the Brazilian variant.

The health ministry adds that, “Since INSACOG initiated its work, 771 variants of concerns (VOCs) have been detected in a total of 10787 positive samples shared by States/UTs. These include 736 samples positive for viruses of the UK (B.1.1.7) lineage. 34 samples were found positive for viruses of the South African (B.1.351) lineage. 1 sample was found positive for viruses of the Brazilian (P.1) lineage.” These are the VOCs found in 18 states.

Could This Be Linked to the Rising Cases?

It’s too soon to tell.

“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.”
Ministry of Health and Family Welfare

In an earlier FIT article on the surge in cases in Maharashtra, Dr Swapneil Parikh, an internal medicine specialist in Mumbai and author of ‘The Coronavirus: What You Need to Know About the Global Pandemic’, said, “We don’t have enough or good quality genomic surveillance testing. We have a bit of a blind spot in genomic sequencing but I do think this is a variant related issue and we need to be very careful of what’s happening in Maharashtra and specifically in Nagpur right now,” says Dr Parikh.

The Variants & Maharashtra’s Surge

The analysis of samples from Maharashtra revealed that compared to December 2020, there has been an increase in the fraction of samples with the E484Q and L452R mutations.

“Such mutations confer immune escape and increased infectivity. These mutations have been found in about 15-20% of samples and do not match any previously catalogued VOCs.”
Ministry of Health and Family Welfare

They added that while these have been categorized as VOCs so far, they still need to be more “testing, comprehensive tracking of close contacts, prompt isolation of positive cases & contacts as well as treatment as per National Treatment Protocol by the States/UTs.”

The Situation in Kerala

INSACOG has sequenced 2032 samples (from all 14 districts) in Kerala and found that the “N440K variant that is associated with immune escape has been found in 123 samples from 11 districts.”

This variant was found in other states and foreign countries as well. “It was found in 33% of samples from Andhra Pradesh, and in 53 of 104 samples from Telangana. This variant has also been reported from 16 other countries including UK, Denmark, Singapore, Japan and Australia. As of now these can be at best said to be variant under investigation.”

Variants of Viruses are a Normal Phenomenon

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 and this process is happening world over.

There is a simple rule for understanding new variants: Ask whether the behaviour of the virus has changed.

In the majority of the cases, viral mutations hardly have any impact on the way the virus affects individuals. In fact, in many cases, the mutation could actually make a virus less potent, as FIT had earlier explained. But in certain instances, a mutation could offer the virus an advantage - which may be what is happening in the United Kingdom. This would ensure that the viruses that do have these mutations (or combinations of mutations) would increase in number by natural selection, given the right epidemiological environment, as described in an article published in The Conversation.

“Many mutations mean nothing at all, or at least are more successful for reasons we don’t know. For instance a different strain may be more transmissible, but cause less disease. Bottom line is that we need to monitor.”
Dr Marc-Alain Widdowson, Director of Institute of Tropical Medicine, Antwerp, told The Indian Express

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