COVID-19 Strain Less Virulent in India? Experts Deny Swamy’s Claim
Doctors say that there is no study to establish that the strain of the virus is less virulent in India.
As the number of novel coronavirus cases continue to climb in India, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Subramanian Swamy took to Twitter on Tuesday, 24 March, to claim that the COVID-19 strain in India is ‘less virulent mutation’.
He attributed the information to his ‘US-based scientist friend Ramesh Swamy’ and wrote, “Uniquely it (COVID-19) is able to be targeted and defeated more effectively by our body’s natural defensive mechanism that the strains abroad.”
At a time when there is fear and panic about coronavirus, this tweet has garnered over 46,000 reactions and has been retweeted by over 10,000 users.
Further, to strengthen Swamy’s argument, a user took to Twitter to share a study saying it backs Swamy's claim. This tweet was later retweeted by the Rajya Sabha MP.
But what is the basis of Swamy’s claim? And is it true that the virus can be defeated by our body’s ‘natural defensive mechanism’? And does the study he shared actually corroborate what Swamy says? Let’s take a look it one by one.
‘No Evidence to Prove What Swamy Says’
To understand the basis of Swamy’s tweet, we got in touch with Dr Rajni Kant Srivastava, Director of Regional Medical Research Centre (RMRC), Gorakhpur, who said that no such study has been carried in India to claim that the strain of virus in India is less virulent.
He further said that every country has a different climate and a different population and this assertion can’t be based on any one country. A person’s immunity would be different depending on which their body will respond.
“There is a possibility, but no such study suggests this as of now,” Dr Rajni Kant said.
As per the numbers put forth by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, there has been a spike in the number of cases of coronavirus in the country. As of 26 March (and at the time of writing this article), over 640 infected cases were reported in India.
Dr Shaheed Jameel, a leading virologist, also refuted the claim and said that there is no evidence or basis to this claim. He also added that such statements lead to chaos and do more harm than good to people.
“There are only two virus sequences from India available in the global India database, which has over 1,100 other sequences. You can’t make these judgments based on two sequences,” Dr Jameel.
He further goes on to say that these two sequences were from the first two cases of the Kerala students who had come from Wuhan adding that ‘we don’t have enough information on the virus so how can we say this’.
Further, scientists in India are trying to find out how the virus mutates. Speaking to Economic Times, Professor of Microbiology and Cell Biology at the Indian Institute of Science, S Vijaya said that ‘virus mutation needs to be known to correlate the sequence variation and its severity’.
However, a molecular geneticist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, who is studying the novel coronavirus has told The Washington Post that the mutation rate of the virus suggests that a single vaccine (once developed) could be used to cure the novel coronavirus.
According to the report, the scientists have said that the strains look pretty much the same everywhere and there is no evidence that some strains are deadlier than others.
Now, let’s take a look at what the study says and if at all it mentions that the virus is less virulent in India.
The Study Doesn’t Comment on the ‘Strength of the Virus’
We got in touch with the Dinesh Gupta, group leader, Transnational Bioinformatics Group, International Centre for Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology, who is one of the authors of the study titled ‘Comparative analyses of SAR-CoV2 genomes from different geographical locations and other coronavirus family genomes reveals unique features potentially consequential to host-virus interaction and pathogenesis’ mentioned by the Twitter user.
Gupta told The Quint that nowhere in the study have they commented on the strength of the virus.
“It is not possible to assess its virulence with the limited available data. On the basis of our analysis, we have observed that the SARS-CoV2 sequence from India (and not an Indian strain) has unique mutations, when compared with sequences from the other countries, few of which may alter the behavior of the virus.”Dinesh Gupta
He further added that this is expected as the viruses mutate to ‘survive, attach and infect human cells’.
Further it must be noted that there is a clear note on top of the paper which says it has not been ‘peer-reviewed’ and it should not be regarded as ‘conclusive, guide-clinical practice/health-related behaviour, or be reported in news media as established information’.
The virus which started in Wuhan has now become a pandemic with over 4,50,000 active cases across the world. Evidently, there is very little evidence to support Swamy’s statement. And in the absence of any such study or available research material the statement is misleading.
In the light of the outbreak, there has been a lot of misinformation on the internet. The Quint has debunked several such claims and you can read all our fact-checked stories here.
(Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to incorporate details of the study which was being used to strengthen Swamy’s remarks and to add a comment from one of the authors of the study.)
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