There is no evidence yet to indicate that the new variant of coronavirus, spreading rapidly in England, has entered the Indian shores.
Though the new mutation of the pathogen has triggered global panic, a silver lining is that it may not affect the upcoming vaccines from Oxford-AstraZeneca and Bharat Biotech which are both based on inactivated virus, a top Indian scientist has said.
“So far, we have not reported this new variant of coronavirus in India. There could be two reasons for that. One is that it may not have reached Indian shores as yet. The second reason could be that it is already present here, but we have not been able to isolate the new mutation so far,” the director of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) Dr RK Mishra said.
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Indian genetic researchers are preparing to step up genome sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19 disease, to ascertain whether the new mutation of the virus has already entered India or any other new mutations have occurred in the country.
The CCMB, a premier CSIR institution, has already decoded 400 whole genome sequences and submitted them to the global database on coronavirus—Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID).
The genome sequencing is crucial in identifying the host response and population vulnerability to COVID-19. The CCMB researchers have found that there is no significant genetic variation of the pathogen in India so far.
“It is the same virulent strain across the world. There is no region-specific strain,” Dr Mishra said.
On the UK strain linked to the change in the spike protein, which enables the entry of the virus into human cells, the CCMB director said the mutation was a matter of concern and its spread could be controlled by ensuring social distancing, wearing masks and maintaining personal hygiene.
“We need to increase the process of sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 virus in India and actively search across the country. By conducting more sequencing, we have to ascertain whether the UK variant is present here or not. The sequencing must be taken up, especially of recently occurring COVID-19 infections, which will help us understand and find if there are any new mutations in the country,” Dr Mishra said.
The top geneticist pointed out that India already had a heavy burden of COVID-19 infections, when compared to countries like the UK. “After the United States, we have the largest number of COVID-19 infections. There is a possibility that there could be many more mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 within India itself. So, there is a need for constant sequencing of the virus genomes and we plan to do that,” he said.
While it is common for viruses to mutate and undergo changes in their genetic code, the mutation observed in the UK is linked to the change in the spike protein, which enables the entry of the virus into human cells. This change is potentially worrisome as it has made the virus capable of infecting people at a much higher rate.
Since the start of the pandemic, scientists sequencing samples of the coronavirus have been tracking those changes to gain insight into how and where the pathogen has been spreading. There have already been some 4,000 different documented mutations in the Sars-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19 as it has spread around the globe. Until now, none have been a real cause for concern but the UK strain has raised an alarm. In London alone, 62 per cent of infections reported in the second week of December were attributed to the new strain, compared to 28 per cent three weeks earlier.
The sharp rise in COVID-19 infections in the UK is believed to have started in the first week of December. It is not yet clear whether the mutated strain has already entered India through travellers from the UK, Europe, South Africa and Australia, where new variants of the virus have been reported.
The genetic code of the new variant has caught the attention of the scientists because of how much it differed from the original version. It possesses a distinct genetic signature featuring an unusually large number of genetic changes, particularly in its spike protein, which are more likely to alter its function. However, vaccines train the immune system to attack several different parts of the virus so that even though part of the spike has mutated, the vaccines should still work.
“The new strain is very efficient when compared to other strains. It is a superior one in causing higher infectivity even when infectivity among the population is already high. It is definitely evolving faster and binding to the receptor more effectively, which is expected from any such variant of the virus. However, it does not appear to be clinically or medically more dangerous and there is no change in the symptoms,” the CCMB director said.
Indians should be more cautious especially during the holiday season because as the virus is working overtime and the only way we can win is by preventing infection. “We cannot afford to have the virus mutating and experimenting more in such a large and dense population like ours. The onus is on us to prevent the spread of a more virulent form of the virus even though the latest mutation is not yet seen in the country. If we have not seen, it does not mean that it is not there,” cautioned Dr Mishra.