What is India’s new virus variant, and how will it affect the nation?
Britain has added India to its COVID-19 travel “red list”, which effectively bans all travel from the country and makes a 10-day hotel quarantine compulsory for UK residents coming back to the country. This move comes after 103 cases of the Indian variant had been identified in the UK.
According to the situation report on outbreak.info, apart from the UK, the new COVID-strain in India has been found in at least 9 other countries, including the US, Australia and New Zealand. So, what is this new variant?
According to Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead officer on COVID-19, told reporters, the new variant, called B.1.617, was initially detected in India with two mutations — the E484Q and L452R, writes Bloomberg. The mutation was first reported in late 2020 by a scientist in India and more details were presented before the WHO a couple of days back.
The news of the ‘double mutant’ variant of COVID-19 being found in India is not something entirely new. Earlier in March, the country’s health ministry said that genome sequencing by INSACOG showed coronavirus variants of concern and a novel variant in India. In mid-April, the WHO said that it is reviewing whether to add the strain recorded in India to its variant of interest list. Until now, WHO has identified the variants that emerged in the U.K., South Africa and Brazil as variants of concern.
Both these mutations are located in a key portion of the virus — the spike protein — that it utilizes to penetrate human cells. These new mutations include changes to the spike protein that make it a “better fit” for human cells. These mutations can make the virus gain entry more easily and multiply faster.
What problems can they cause? Mutations can lead to 20% more in-hospital deaths like how it was during the second wave in South Africa. Some mutant variants possess the ability to spread faster, resulting in sudden increase in cases and an overwhelmed healthcare system. Most of these implications can be seen in India now, with the country seeing a sudden jump in cases, leading to shortage of hospital beds and oxygen cylinders.
The new variant could be worrisome, but there is hope ahead. The Indian government has allowed COVID-19 vaccination for all above 18 years of age, beginning May 1. This move is anticipated to change the course of the pandemic currently impacting the entire country. The Centre has also allowed states to procure additional doses directly from the manufacturers.
Also, a senior government official told Reuters that India will waive its 10% customs duty on imported COVID-19 vaccines. The official also stated that the Centre was considering allowing private entities to import approved vaccines for sale on the open market without government intervention.
The government’s move to increase the supply of vaccines and allowing more people to get vaccinated is a great move. Moreover, the government should also improve containment measures to curb the emergence of new variants. Apart from this, the Indian vaccine manufactures have to develop better vaccines, which will work against these new variants.
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