India is grappling with a record rise in COVID-19 infections that has overwhelmed hospitals and led to bed and oxygen shortages.
A key question is whether a new variant with potentially disturbing mutations – B.1.617 – is causing what is currently the world’s fastest growing epidemic, which has added more than 330,000 new infections. Friday.
Variant B.1.617 has already appeared elsewhere, including the United States, Australia, Israel and Singapore. Concern over this has led some countries, including the UK and Canada, to impose travel restrictions on India.
Here’s what we know so far.
When did he appear?
Viruses are changing all the time, and the one that causes COVID-19 has already undergone several thousand mutations – some of more concern than others.
India first reported the B.1.617 genome to the Global Database (GISAID) in October.
India’s health ministry reported the variant in late March, saying it was in 15-20% of samples analyzed from those most affected. Maharashtra state. More recently, that figure was 60%.
The variant was also detected in 18 other countries as of this month, according to GISAID.
Should we be worried?
B.1.617 has been classified by the World Health Organization as a “variant of interest”.
Other variants detected in Brazil, South Africa and the UK were classified as “of concern” because they are more transmissible, virulent or could reduce the effectiveness of antibodies.
B.1.617 presents several mutations, including two notable (E484Q and L452R), which sometimes leads to call it the “double mutant”.
The first notable mutation is similar to another (E484K or sometimes nicknamed “Eek”) observed in the South African, Brazilian and more recently British variants.
The “Eek” has been nicknamed an “escape mutation” because it helps the virus overcome the body’s immune system.
The other notable mutation was found by a California study to be an effective diffuser.
Scientists say more evidence is needed to determine whether these mutations make the B.1.617 variant more dangerous.
Is the variant behind the peak of India?
Rakesh Mishra, director of the Hyderabad-based Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, is one of the scientists currently analyzing variant B.1.617.
So far, he says, it has been “better in terms of delivery compared to the other variants.”
“Slowly it will become the most common and it will replace the other variants,” he told AFP news agency.
However, it is not yet clear if the current wave in India is related to this variant, or if it is motivated by human behavior or something else.
Health experts have raised “super broadcaster” concerns about recent religious festivals and huge political rallies with crowds mostly without masks.
However, several countries take no risk with B.1.617. When that travel prohibited from India this week, the UK specifically raised concerns about the new variant.
The United States also advised against traveling to India on Wednesday, noting that “even fully vaccinated travelers can be at risk of contracting and spreading variants of COVID-19.”
Are vaccines effective against this?
One of the mutations is linked to “Eek,” which is believed to reduce the protection of antibodies against a previous infection or vaccination, said Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virology researcher at the University of Utah.
Mishra says scientists were testing the vaccine’s effectiveness against the variant.
Even so, experts say, vaccines still offer some protection, especially against severe cases.
Since more variants emerge when there are more infected hosts, Mishra said, India needs to get its epidemic under control.
Another variant, B.1.618, recently raised red flags when it became the third most detected in India.
Goldstein highlighted the UK’s success in reversing a recent outbreak despite the presence of a more communicable variant.
“It can be quite expensive, but it can be done,” he told AFP.
“I think the vaccination campaign has certainly helped … but it was the lockdown that allowed them to slow the rise in cases and start turning the corner.”