With India reporting the world's sharpest spike in coronavirus infections this month and the healthcare system crumbling down, the 'Indian variant' named B.1.617 has come back into focus again. Scientists are studying whether this particular variant of the novel coronavirus first detected in India and has now reportedly been found in at least 17 countries is the reason for the surge in the second wave.
India has been recording more than 3 lakh COVID-19 cases for seven successive days. As of the morning of May 28, 3,60,960 cases had been logged and 3,293 lives had been lost within 24 hours, according to official records. Experts say the numbers could be higher. Several health experts and virologists have speculated that the mutations which have resulted in the Indian variant are a significant reason behind the flood of cases that the country is reporting.
What is a variant?
As a virus spreads from one person to another, it makes imperfect copies of itself for transmission. This causes some changes (also called 'mutations') in the structure of the virus, hence producing a variant of the original virus. Other than the Indian one, the UK variant (B.1.1.7), the South African variant (B.1.351) and the Brazilian variant (P.1) are the most commonly known foreign variants by the medical community.
Mutations that a virus undergoes also determine chances of increased transmission and the ability to evade antibodies in the body after vaccination.
Explaining this, virologist Dr John Jacob said, "Most mutations are inconsequential. However, variants of "concern" are mutations that change some characteristics of the virus -- transmission efficiency, virulence, fit with immunity to the earlier virus, particularly the variant called D614G that was used for vaccine preparation."
What is the Indian variant?
The 'Indian double mutant' also known as the B1617 variant, was first detected in December last year said The World Health Organization (WHO), although an earlier version was spotted in October 2020. It is reported to have mutations - E484Q and L452R which allow the virus to neutralize antibodies present in the body while the P681 mutation allows easy transmission of the virus.
It is to be noted that the surge of COVID-19 cases in India comes three months after the health minister Dr Harsh Varsh announced "India has successfully contained the pandemic."
Dr Jacob believes that variants like the UK variant and the Indian variants (double and triple mutants) etc are a major contributing factor for the second wave. "People, the government included, lowered their guard at the crucial time when mutant variants were widespread, but not yet detected. It was because no one was carefully looking for them. The combination resulted in the second wave, with very fast spread," he said.
While the treatment for the cases infected with the variant remains unchanged, the virologist said that the damage from the variants will remain unavoidable if we allow the virus to spread, without protection from any vaccines.
"These variants will keep rising unless we stop it with either the masking which works just as before, vaccines which works just as before but we have to keep on doing it and distancing. But the difference is the virus will grow faster than we can vaccinate because for every person infected, the virus will infect five or six or eight more people," Dr Feigl-Ding told BOOM in an interview. Dr Feigl-Ding is an epidemiologist, health economist, and Senior Fellow at the Federation of American Scientists who used to be a Faculty and Researcher at Harvard Medical School.
How do variants impact vaccination?
There have been instances recorded with other variants which have impacted the efficacy of vaccines. Dr Jacob explained that while the AstraZeneca vaccine is not effective against variant B.1.351 (called South Africa variant), mRNA vaccines and Covaxin seem to protect against it much better. "Variants of concern should be tested against vaccine-induced immunity," he said.
A new study from the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) stated that both the Indian vaccines, Covishield and Covaxin, have proven effective against the mutant. Director of IGIB, Anurag Agrawal, said that the study has revealed that the Indian variant could generate only "milder" illness in case of infection post-vaccination.
Another study by the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, has also reported similar findings. On April 22, Rakesh Mishra, director of CCMB, tweeted out a "very preliminary but encouraging result". Mishra said that early results using in vitro neutralisation assay show that Covishied offer protection against the B.1.617 variant.
Earlier this week, White House chief medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci said that preliminary evidence from lab studies suggest Covaxin appears capable of neutralizing the variant.
Explaining the different variants, Dr Feigl-Ding said that the South African variant has a lot of reinfection risk and the South African variant has the greatest immune escape. "It does not mean the vaccine won't work, it's just much weaker against it. There is UK B.1.1.7. This is more contagious and 60%, more severe. B.1.1.7, also infects kids more and the India variants B.1.6.17 and B.1.6.18, the double and triple mutants as some call it, it is worrisome because it has properties of some of the worst variants we have seen elsewhere," he said. "We don't know the exact contagiousness but we do know that generally the more warm body the virus has, the more it will mutate," Dr Feigl-Ding added.