Testing in progress in Delhi on Wednesday. (Express photo by Amit Mehra)
The government announced on Wednesday that a new “double mutant variant” of the novel coronavirus has been detected in the country, along with the three variants from the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil. The government underlined, however, that the mutations have not been detected in numbers that would be “sufficient” to establish the rapid increase in cases in some states.
These variants detected in the community “have been prevalent since last 6-8 months”, the Centre said. “The occurrence of mutations is a natural process. The RNA strand of the virus will replicate and will make mistakes resulting in mutations. We should not worry about mutations,” Dr V K Paul, chairperson of India’s Covid-19 task force, said.
“However”, Dr Paul said, “the most important thing to remember is that viruses will not mutate if they are not allowed to replicate. Therefore, we have to only suppress the chain of transmission to stop mutations of the virus. Testing, quarantine, and containment will limit the spread of the virus”.
The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) has detected a new double mutant variant, E484Q mutation, that can escape antibody neutralisation and L452R mutations associated with increased infectivity, the Union Health Ministry said on Wednesday. A total 206 cases of the double mutant variant (E484Q + L452R) have been detected in Maharashtra, the data show.
However, no direct link has been established between the ongoing surge in Maharashtra and the detection of the double mutant variant, the Centre said. The rise in cases is the result of a large susceptible population being exposed to the virus for the first time, the government said.
“Double mutant variant is evolving. They have been observed in 206 samples in Maharashtra and in varied numbers in Delhi. When we link (it to the mutations), we have to see where the samples have been picked. This is very relevant. In Nagpur, we have found a substantial number of around 20 per cent; that 20 per cent just correlating with the type of surge is not possible,” Dr Sujeet Kumar Singh, Director, National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) said.
“Because one-to-one equation has not been established… We are observing a surge in those wards of Nagpur, which were least affected in the previous surge. The susceptible pool of population in those eight wards was substantially large. When this population was exposed to the virus, it resulted in the surge,” Dr Singh said.
The double mutant variant has also been reported in Delhi (9 cases), Gujarat (3), and Punjab (2), the Centre said. Jammu, Ladakh, and Odisha have detected one case each.
ExplainedNeeds study, but govt flags complacence
The double mutant is a “variant of interest”, which requires further investigation to establish a direct link with the ongoing surge. The second wave is attributable to large susceptible population not affected in the first wave, and a lowering of the guard in the last few months.
The Centre said that the three variants from the UK, Brazil, and South Africa, which have been termed as “Variants of Concern” (VOC) by the WHO, have been detected in 18 states. This would not, however, impact India’s vaccination drive, it said.
“It is well established by research studies in literature and published literature, that both the vaccines that are available in our country are effective against both the UK and Brazil variants. The research regarding the South African variant is ongoing at the moment,” Dr Balram Bhargava, DG, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), said.
Dr Singh said that as of today, the new mutations can be termed as “variants of interest”. “There are three terms, the three variants of concern classified by the WHO; the second is the variant of interest, which are mutations found in the spike protein region of the virus, and the third is the variant which needs detailed investigation, and we call them as variants under investigation,” he said.
“The testing and treatment protocol remains the same. There is also no deviation in public health measures with emerging variants. Cluster containment measures remain the same,” Dr Singh said.
The top five states with the UK variant (B.1.1.7) are: Punjab (336), Telangana (87), Delhi (65), Maharashtra (56), and Gujarat (39), the Centre said.
And the top five states with the South Africa variant (B.1.351) are: Telangana (17), Maharashtra (5), Delhi (4), Karnataka (3), and Andhra Pradesh (3). Only one case of the Brazil variant (P1) has been detected — from Madhya Pradesh.
Dr Singh said that states that are witnessing surges currently “have revealed different mutation profile post-sequencing”.
“There are many reasons for a surge. The main reason is the pool of susceptible populations. Wherever the pool of susceptible population is large, and whenever this population lowers its guard and doesn’t follow Covid-19-appropriate behaviour, they will get infected by a variant or by the normal virus. This has been the main reason that we have seen in the recent surge,” he said.
The Health Ministry also said that the N440K variant, which is associated with immune escape, has been found in 123 samples from 11 districts of Kerala. “This variant was earlier found in 33% of samples from Andhra Pradesh, and in 53 of 104 samples from Telangana,” the Ministry said.