The COVID-19 variant, B.1.617, found to be responsible for the rising cases in Maharashtra has now been identified by the World Health Organisation as a fourth variant of concern. This is after several COVID-19 positive samples across the world showed the presence of this variant.
WHO's technical lead for COVID-19, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove stated that preliminary studies show that this variant spreads more easily than the original virus and there is some evidence it may be able to evade some of the protections provided by vaccines. However, all the approved vaccines still remain effective against the variant.
While the preliminary studies do suggest that there is increased transmissibility, Kerkhove added that there is still a lot more that needs to be understood about this variant. Further targeted sequencing is the need of the hour to understand the severity, infectivity, and impact of this variant.
Variants Of Concern
According to the WHO, four different mutations seen in the original SARS-CoV-2 are emerging as areas of concern due to their increased transmissibility, increased severity, and increased ability to decrease the immunity given by the vaccines. The other three variants include the UK variant (B. 1.1.7), the South African variant (B.18.104.22.168), and the Brazilian variant (P1).
All the four variants have been in circulation since the months of November and December last year. The B.1.6.7 Indian variant was first detected in Maharashtra in December 2020.
India's National Centre for Disease Control has been tracking the spread of all the four variants in the country to understand the epidemiological trend of the variants in the country.
What Do We Know About The B.1.6.7 Variant?
Earlier known as the 'double-mutant', this Indian variant now has been exhibiting three noteworthy mutations that make it easier for the virus to bind to the receptor binding domain and transmit more easily in the patient's body. Although the vaccines are effective against the variant, their intensity is lesser in comparison to the original virus. This means that the nature of the antibodies created against this variant need to be further studied.
This variant shows mutations at L452R, E484Q, and P681R positions in the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. The E484Q mutation is common to the other variants of concern suggesting that it plays an active role in affecting the transmissibility of the mutant.
The B.1.6.7 variant showed prominence when the cases in the state of Maharashtra started increasing from the month of February this year. Areas of Nagpur, Amravati reported a high number of this sample. As the variant spread across the country, the NCDC listed it as a variant of interest.
On May 7, the UK government recommended that this variant that has now been reported across Europe and US be listed as a variant of concern. The WHO which has been tracking close to 10 other variants included this variant in the list of variants of concern after its numbers have exponentially shot up and the preliminary findings showing that it is more contagious than the original virus.