How far is India vigilant about new variants of COVID-19? Here is a reality check:
As per data provided by INSACOG — the genomic consortium of 10 laboratories established by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare — 19,092 samples have been collected and 10,946 genomes analysed as on April 20, 2021. Worst-hit states such as Kerala, Maharashtra, Delhi and West Bengal are the major contributors in genomic surveillance. Kerala has sent 2,455 samples whereas Maharashtra 1,215, Delhi 1,232, West Bengal 874 and Haryana 810.
On the other hand, contribution of states such as Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh is low despite having a high number of cases. UP has so far sequenced only 46 samples. Gujarat has sent 109 samples for testing the presence of mutant virus. It is only 44 for Bihar and 108 for Madhya Pradesh, according to INSACOG.
The figures are better for two southern states: 142 samples from Karnataka and 167 from Tamil Nadu have been sent for genomic surveillance so far.
Since December 2020, 771 variants of concerns (VOCs) have been detected in a total of 10,787 positive samples shared by states/UTs. These include 736 samples positive for viruses of the UK strain (B.1.1.7). Thirty-four samples were found positive for viruses of the South African strain (B.1.351) and only one sample was found positive for viruses of the Brazilian (P.1). The samples with these VOCs have been identified in 18 states/UTs.
Talking to The Federal, Dr TS Selvavinayagam, director, Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Tamil Nadu, said TN has so far 167 samples to the National Institute of Virology in Pune out of which 62 have tested positive for the UK strain. However, he said the centre is not sending samples on a regular basis as the exercise is expensive.
In the 2,442 samples sequenced (collected from 14 districts), Kerala is found to have 42 samples of the UK strain which is believed to be more contagious compared to other variants. However, Kerala has not witnessed a sharp rise in cases carrying this particular strain of the virus. “The new strains are not yet found to be very dominant in Kerala, the number of positive cases are very few so far,” says Dr Mohemmad Asheel, social security mission director, Kerala.
The N440K variant that is associated with ‘immune escape’ has been found in 123 samples from 11 districts of Kerala. This variant was earlier found in 33 per cent of samples from Andhra Pradesh, and in 53 of 104 samples from Telangana. This variant has also been reported from 16 other countries including the UK, Denmark, Singapore, Japan and Australia. The data provided by INSACOG shows that there is a sharp increase in the number of cases tested positive for B.1.1.7 and B1.351 since February 2021.
The analysis of samples from Maharashtra has revealed that compared to December 2020, there has been an increase in the fraction of samples with the E484Q and L452R mutations, according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Such mutations confer immune escape and increased infectivity. These mutations have been found in about 15-20 per cent of samples from Maharashtra.
“India does not have sufficient learning to assess the impact of new variants. The genomic surveillance goes very slow here compared to that in other countries. Many states apply least focus on testing samples to find the new variants,” says Dr Arun NM, a public health expert.
Is mutation of the virus common? Yes. “There are thousands of them and the virus is constantly mutating in order to evolve,” says Dr Vinod Scaria, scientist at the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research
As far as the common people are concerned, there are three frequently asked questions that require clarity: How contagious is each new variant? Is it more fatal compared to the previous ones? Is it vaccine-resistant? “There is no conclusive evidence. The current evidence is based on the mutations and their effects seen independently in other places of the world,” said Dr Scaria. He said some lineages like the UK variant are more infective and found in some states in India. They are expected to behave in the same manner as elsewhere, he added.