Many of the new cases of the Covid-19 variant reported across the UK are attributed to the Indian variant.
The WHO had earlier classified the India variant as a ‘global concern’. Mutations graduate from a “variant of interest” to “variant of concern” when they show evidence of meeting one of several criteria.
Does it result in severe illness? Is it easily transmissible? Does it result in reduced antibody neutralization? Does it reduce the effectiveness of existing vaccines or treatments? If one or more of the answers is yes, then it poses great concern. The WHO elevated the Indian mutation to this category in May.
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The Indian variant
Viruses are notorious for their frequent mutations. Most of the variants are insignificant, however, some bring out the worst in a virus. According to Euronews, The B.1.617 variant has three sub-lineages and was first detected in October 2020 in India. Structurally the variant has multiple concerning mutations that affect how it binds with proteins.
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How harmful is the India variant?
According to the UK Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, this month the variant is likely more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 variant that first surfaced in the UK. They even estimated that this new mutation is likely 50% more transmissible.
The increased infectious nature of the mutation is due to several mutations in spike protein which the virus uses to enter into cells. One of the mutations, L452R, enhances the ability of SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein to bind onto the host cell’s surface. B.1.617.2 - a sublineage has spread more rapidly than two of its closest relatives.
The detection of two amino acids, (157-158) has been linked to antibodies escaping thus influencing how the variant responds to vaccines and treatment.
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In the UK
As the source of many new infections across the UK, several countries have enforced stricter measures on British travelers. Germany decided to halt non-essential travel from there altogether.
At the peak of the May outbreak, India reported over 400,000 cases Covid-19 cases daily and still experiences about 4,000 deaths every day. Medical experts put the variant under study to establish whether it is responsible for the deadly surge witnessed in India that has resulted in an overwhelming number of the country’s hospitals. This version or mutation of the original coronavirus strain is the B.1.617 and spreads faster than other variants requiring further study.
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Where is it in the UK?
By May 26, BBC reported over 5,000 cases of the new B.1.617.2 variant across England, 383 in Scotland, 62 in Wales, and 15 in Northern Ireland. In areas of Northwest England it has been recorded in Blackburn, Bolton and Sefton and also recorded to the South-East around Bedford, Canterbury, and Chelmsford. Most of the cases reported in London were concentrated around Hounslow, Croydon, and Hillingdon. The recent surge in Glasgow has also been attributed to the variant.
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Origins of infection
Most of the infections are from people coming back from India. In the case of North-West England 7.5% of cases were attributed to people who had travelled, an indication of the virus spreading into the community.
Fears over the Indian variant did not affect the easing of lockdown restrictions on 17th May. This forced the government to issue new advice to people across England. People were advised to avoid travel in and out of Burnley, Bedford, Hounslow, Blackburn with Darwen, Leicester, North Tyneside, Kirklees, and Bolton.
Presently, there are three other variants: Brazil, the UK, and South Africa.
India has recorded about 27 million coronavirus infections of which 307,000 are deaths. Surging infection rates have overwhelmed hospitals and created a chronic shortage of oxygen. The last month saw several states impose curfews, lockdowns, and curbs on movement. Many have heaped blame on PM Narendra Modi’s government for allowing large political gatherings during the Hindu festivals and mobilization that also marks the election period.