Just as the world was preparing to shed its quarantine-induced inertia and looking forward to beat COVID with vaccines and a brand new year, a new strain of the virus seems to have spilled water on all plans.
The total number of COVID-19 cases across the world stands at 81,186,494 (as of Monday) including 1,772,838 fatalities and 57,330,519 recoveries.
The new COVID-19 strain – named VUI 202012/01 – which is believed to be 70 per cent more infectious has spread to many countries, soon after it was detected in Kent on September 20.
About the mutation
The new variant belongs to the B.1.1.7 lineage of SARS-CoV-2. While two variants of the lineage were collected from Kent and Greater London on September 20 and 21, the lineage had 1,623 viruses – 555 from Kent, 519 from Greater London, 545 from other regions in the UK and four from Australia, Denmark, Italy and Netherlands – by December 15, said a report in Indian Express.
The numbers of variants of the lineage spiked to 3,575 by December 25, with most of them concentrated in the UK and some in France, Ireland, Israel, Hong Kong and Singapore.
The variant so far has undergone 23 mutations – 17 non-synonymous and six synonymous – across five genes, that has affected the shape of the virus including the spike protein, from where coronavirus draws its identity. Eight of the 17 non-synonymous mutations have occurred in the spike protein alone.
Should it worry us?
Despite concerns, while there is no evidence that the new variant cannot be detected by currently used tests and escape vaccines, it has been proven that it is more contagious – meaning more infections and deaths.
Reports say infected people in this case, carry more virus in their nose and throat, increasing chances of spreading it to more people, leading to higher contamination and mortality rates.
Experts, however, have assured that the vaccines which are currently under development would work on the variant.
Even though several countries including India have banned flights to and fro UK in view of the emergence of the new variant, another fast-spreading mutated variant – 501.V2 – has been detected in South Africa. The South African variant also shares the N501Y mutation (mutation on the spike protein of the virus, which helps it attach easily to human cells) with the UK variant.
Is it concerning for India?
Even though the mutations have not been detected in India yet, P681H mutations were seen in states like Maharashtra and West Bengal in July, and now constitute 14 per cent of the SARS-COV-2 infections in the country. An IE report says if not monitored through genetic surveillance, one more mutation of the virus would lead to the emergence of the UK variant in India.
At this juncture, to detect the variants before they spread, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has advised countries to determine the virus genomic sequence from at least one out of 300 confirmed cases. However, against UK’s sequencing of 132,572 viral variants from its 2.19 million cases, India has only sequenced 4,976 variants of its 100 lakh cases.
Experts say only “genetic surveillance” will help the viral variants from escaping vaccine as soon as India inoculates its population. That apart, social distancing, constant use of mask and sanitization will help reduce transmission and thereby thwart mutation of the virus.
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