COVID variant may be already present in many countries, says WHO scientist

Chief scientist of WHO Dr Soumya Swaminathan, however, said that the mutations seen in the new virus may not necessarily nullify the effect of the COVID-19 vaccines on the body

Soumya Swaminathan
Swaminathan said India should first try inoculating 70 per cent of its population before moving on to booster shots | Photo: Wikipedia

Even as the central government has assured that there is no need to panic over the new variant of novel coronavirus discovered in the UK, Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at World Health Organisation said the virus may already be present in several countries.

In an interview with NDTV, she, however, said that it was too early to draw conclusions on the new strain, called B.1.1.7 and that a “couple of mutations” many not necessarily affect the immune system’s response to the existing COVID-19 vaccines.

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“The UK is one of those countries that is doing a lot of whole genome sequencing and is therefore able to track this very closely in real time. I suspect that as more countries look at their data, they might find this variant, or a related variant, might already be there,” she told NDTV.

“There have been mutations (of other viruses) in the past that become the dominant variant going forward. This may just be another such variant…It is unlikely that a couple of mutations in the spike protein could change the response of the immune system to the vaccine,” she said.

Stating that it may take a couple of weeks for scientists to understand the new strain, Swaminathan said countries should do more genome sequencing, a process which helps in developing a vaccine.

“India has huge capacity to do whole genome sequencing. In fact, India is already contributing quite a lot to a global database that has close to 300,000 sequences,” she said.

She added that countries should stick to testing, contact tracing and isolation of infected people to curb the transmission of the mutated virus.

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The new strain of the novel coronavirus, detected in southeast England in September, has spread to London and other parts of the UK. As many as 30 countries including India have banned flights to and from the UK. In India, the ban will be effective from Wednesday and passengers who arrive from the UK will be tested on arrival. The Maharashtra government has also imposed a night curfew till January 5 to curb the spread of the virus.