A fast-spreading novel coronavirus variant first detected in India — dubbed B.1.617 SARS-CoV-2 variant — is now labelled as “a variant of concern”, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The UN agency said on 10 May that the variant, also known as “double mutant”, is now being classified as a variant of global concern, while some preliminary studies showed that it can spread more easily.
It is the fourth variant to be designated as being of global concern and requiring heightened tracking and analysis.
The other concerning variants were first detected in Brazil (P.1), South Africa (B.1.351) and the United Kingdom (B.1.1.7).
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid-19 said during the organisation's press briefing: "We are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level”.
"There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility," she added.
However, the WHO will publish a detailed report on 11 May on B.1.617, said Kerkhove
The Variant Of Concern
The healthcare system in India has been stretched to an extreme point by the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
The country has been reporting more than 300,000 new Covid-19 cases since 22 April.
Recently, new assessments disclosed by the experts have shown that the double mutant and its particular lineage B.1.617.2 have rapidly expanded their footprint in several regions.
According to lab tests, the variant can lead to a high viral load.
This variant is being considered one of the reasons why India has been overwhelmed by a surge in new coronavirus infections.
In the case of B.1.617, during Monday’s brief Kerkove stressed that for the time being “we do not have anything to suggest that our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines do not work”.
As per a study, published on 9 May by the scientists from Cambridge, “The loss of neutralisation of B.1.617 (by vaccinated serum) has likely contributed to an epidemic wave in India where background infection to the Wuhan-1 D614G in 2020 was between 20-50 per cent”.
The team of scientists also pointed out a particular mutation, which has also been seen in the variant first found in the United Kingdom, as having some implication on how the disease develops.
“We find that P681R is associated with enhanced capacity to induce cell-cell fusion and syncitia formation and that P681R alone confers this ability on the B.1.617.1 spike with RBD mutations L452R and E484Q,” the study says.
However, the chief scientist at WHO, Soumya Swaminathan, said that studies were underway in India to understand the transmissibility of the variant, the severity of Covid-19 it causes and the response of antibodies in people who have been vaccinated.
"What we know now is that the vaccines work, the diagnostics work, the same treatments that are used for the regular virus works, so there is really no need to change any of those," she added.
Meanwhile, at least 17 countries have reported the first cases of the double mutant, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Singapore.
On 11 May, the Philippines becomes the latest country to detect the first two cases of the B.1.617 variant.
Earlier, both of India's vaccines, Serum Institute of India’s (SII) Covishield and Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin have shown efficacy against B.1.617 variant, as per a study.
Anurag Agrawal, director at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), said the initial study results showed only mild infections of the new coronavirus variant after people received either of these vaccines.
Later, similar results were shown during another study carried out by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad.
CCMB Director Rakesh Mishra wrote on Twitter: "Very preliminary but encouraging result: #Covishield protects against #B1617. Early results using in vitro neutralisation assay show that both convalescent (prior infection) sera and Covishield vaccinated sera offer protection against the B.1.617 variant, aka #DoubleMutant."
Even though it is still unclear whether the Russian vaccine Sputnik V — the third jab to be declared for use in India — will be effective against the double mutant, Russian Direct Investment Fund’s CEO Kirill Dmitriev reportedly claimed that the vaccine has the same effectiveness against the British strain as against many other variants and also the original virus.
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