Explained: Are The New COVID-19 Variants Behind The Rise In Cases?

Variants cannot be said to be solely behind the surge in new COVID-19 cases as they have not been found in sufficient number to establish a direct relationship or explain the rapid increase in cases.

India has been witnessing a surge in new COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks. The number of active cases have increased for the 15th day in a row as of March 25.

Even as cases increase, India has reported a double mutant variant of the novel coronavirus. The double mutant variant has been found in more than 200 samples from Maharashtra. Other variants have also been discovered in India.

What Are Mutant Viruses?

Genetic mutations is the alteration in the genetic code of an organism which is either permanent and can be passed on to the next generation.

Genomic mutations in RNA viruses are pretty common with a mutation of 5%-6% considered to be normal. However, these mutations become a cause for concern when they enhance the viruses' ability to transmit effectively, help it escape the human body's immune system and make it more lethal.

How Many Have SARS-CoV-2 Mutants Have Been Found And Should We Be Concerned?

While many mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 have been identified, three variants have been classified as variants of concern by the World Health Organisation. These are the UK variant (B.1.1.7), the South African variant (B.1.351) and the Brazil/Japan variant (B. The UK variant has been reported in 125 countries, the SA variant in 75 countries and the Brazil/Japan variant in 41 countries.

Image courtesy: MoHFW

The UK, South African and the Brazil/Japan variant have been found to spread quicker. The South African and Brazil/Japan variants have been found to have an increased chance of reinfection.

More studies are ongoing to understand how widely the variants have been spread, the changes in COVID-19 disease as compared to existing variants and how the variants react to vaccines, treatments and tests.

How Many Variants Have Been Found in India?

Since the beginning of the pandemic, India began monitoring the genetic variations in SAR-CoV-2 through the India SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG). The INSACOG was formed in December 2020 and utilises the resources of Department of Biotechnology (DBT), (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

The INSACOG's main purpose is to study the various mutations being reported and to study their effects on public health and safety.

18 states in India have reported the three variants of concern. More than 10,000 samples were analysed of which 771 samples were found to be variants of concern. The UK variant is the most predominant one with 736 cases being found. The SA variant was found in 34 samples while only one sample turned out to be of the Brazil/Japan variant.

Image courtesy: MoHFW

The INSACOG has also identified six other variants of concern in India. These are N501Y, E484K, E484Q, L452R, N440K and the double mutant variant of E484Q+L452R. The double mutant variant has been majorly found in the Vidharbha region of Maharashtra.

Though it may sound dangerous, the term double mutant simply means that the particular variant has characteristics of two different variants. According to Dr Rakesh Mishra, Director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, despite being classified as a variant of concern, the double mutant variant is not the reason behind the increase in COVID-19 cases.

"In Maharashtra you see this variant in 20% of cases which means 80% of the new cases we are seeing are because of something else. So certainly this double mutant is not the cause of increasing number of the cases. Neither is it more clinically troublesome because the people are asymptomatic and mortality is not high. So looks like this mutant is there but is to be to be watched and to be recorded and monitored. But otherwise it doesn't seem to be of much concern right at the moment," Dr Mishra told BOOM.

NCDC director Dr Sujeet Kumar Singh said that it cannot be said that variants are solely behind the surge in new COVID-19 cases seen in some states as they have not been found in sufficient number to "establish or direct relationship or explain the rapid increase in cases in some States".

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