Explained: New COVID-19 Strains In India

Three new COVID-19 strains have been found in Maharashtra's Amravati, Satara and Yavatmal district which could be driving the cases

Three new COVID-19 variants with mutations in the spike protein of the novel coronavirus have emerged in Maharashtra after the state started reporting more than 5,000 COVID-19 cases for the past few days. Mutations at N440K, E484K, V911I have been found circulating in Maharashtra after the samples were sent for genomic sequencing.

While the country is following stricter measures to curb the spread of the new variants from United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, Maharashtra has seen the emergence of mutations too that are transmitting faster and have led to the increase in cases in districts such as Amravati and Yavatmal.

The British variant B.1.1.7 is known to be more infectious but the leading vaccines are effective against the same.

The South African variant was found in four people after their samples were sent for genomic sequencing in Amravati. Not only does this variant have the N501Y mutation like the UK variant, which makes it easier for the virus to spread, it also has an additional E484K point mutation. At the 484th position on the genetic material of the spike protein, a nucleotide coding for the E protein has been replaced with the nucleotides coding for K.

This mutation has made it difficult for the vaccines to attack the virus and create effective antibodies against the virus. This mutation is helping the virus to escape the effect of the antibodies and therefore the vaccines need to be modified to act on this strain. This same mutation is found in the Brazil variant.

South Africa also has stopped the use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine after recent studies found that the vaccine does not help in reducing the effect of the virus in mild to moderate situations.

Other Variants Found In Maharashtra

Yavatmal and Satara also have reported different variants of SARS-CoV-2. While Yavatmal has reported a mutation in 440th position wherein the N protein is replaced by the K protein, the Satara variant has a mutation at the 911th position where the V protein is replaced by the I protein.

These mutations occurring in the spike protein are also helping the virus transmit faster. The action of vaccines against these variants still needs to be studied.

The N440K variant was first found in Andhra Pradesh. According to a study conducted by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), this variant needs to be further surveyed to ensure that vaccines are effective against the virus. The study also states that this variant is more prevalent in the southern states of India. "Accurate and timely detection of new variants that may show greater infectivity or worse clinical symptoms, including immune escape, will be extremely important to preempt disastrous consequences," reads the press release.

Effects of Variants

BOOM contacted Dr. Lancelot Pinto, Consultant Pulmonologist, PD Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai to understand the effect of the new strains on the ongoing pandemic situation in the country.

"We still do not know whether the variants cause more infectivity or severity of the disease but there is a possibility that they may escape the lasting immunity that we are expecting from the approved vaccines. The genomic samples of the variants need to be studied to understand the effectiveness of the vaccines against them," Dr. Pinto stated.

"Whether the variants are the driving reason for the increase in cases or that non-medicinal COVID-19 practices are not being adequately followed also needs to be understood," Dr. Pinto concluded.

India reported over 14,000 new cases in the last 24 hours after a period of 28 days. In the interim, India was reporting close to 7,000-13,000 cases daily.

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