As COVID-19 cases overwhelm hospitals in India, a new coronavirus variant has emerged.
Dubbed the”double mutant” variant and announced barely 1 month ago, already researchers are trying to figure out if it may be causing the surge in cases — and what that could mean for the rest of the planet.
“We need to keep a close eye on this variant,” Katelyn Jetelina, PhD, MPH, of the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, wrote in a recent email newsletter.
Why “Double Mutant”?
Its official name is B.1. 617, along with also the”double mutant” is a tiny misnomer, because it really carries 13 mutations, 7 of which are in the spike protein. However, the moniker stems from two noteworthy mutations found in other versions that looked together for the first time in this new strain: the L452R mutation along with the E484Q mutation.
The L452R mutation from the spike protein has been initially found at the COVID-19 variant detected in California. One research found that the California variant carrying this mutation may be around 20% more transmissible than wild-type breeds.
The E484Q mutation is noteworthy since it appears to be very similar to the E484K mutations found at the B.1. 351 (South African) and P.1 (Brazilian) variations ) The E484K mutation in these variants is considered an”escape mutation” since it empowers SARS-CoV-2 to evade immune defense with monoclonal antibodies, which might reduce the potency of vaccines. So far, however, current vaccines appear to be holding up against these variations, according to Jetelina.
The exact significance of these mutations is still being exercised.
“Just because there are two worrisome mutations on one variant doesn’t necessarily mean this is [doubly] contagious or [doubly] deadly. The WHO [World Health Organization] has declared B.1. 617 a ‘Variant of Interest’ instead of a ‘Variant of Concern,'” she wrote.
WHO defines a”variant of interest” as a person that has been found to trigger community transmission, has been found in multiple COVID-19 cases or clusters, or has been observed in multiple countries. By comparison, a”variant of concern” is described as one that’s been connected with or has demonstrated increased transmissibility, higher virulence, a change in clinical illness, or diminished effectiveness of efforts to control or treat the disease.
Why Is the’India’ Variant Important?
B.1. ) 617 was spreading quickly in India. It’s currently the dominant strain in the state of Maharashtra in southwestern India. Maharashtra is India’s second most populous state and home of India’s financial center at Mumbai.
Back in December 2020, 271 million people (about one-fifth of India’s population) were already infected with COVID-19. Modelling studies suggested that India may have reached herd immunity through natural infection. India’s health minister declared the country had successfully contained the spread of this virus.
Three months later, India is fighting its main COVID-19 spike nonetheless. Infections are at the greatest daily average reported, with over 340,000 new illnesses reported each day, and experts believe the actual number of infections and deaths may be under-estimated.
Could the new variant be to blame for the present surge? Or can it be a confluence of factors linked to people letting their guard down — a lack of masking, big gatherings of people travelling and mixing together, and folks somehow thinking that India was already immune?
No one really knows, however, a similar situation has occurred elsewhere in the world.
“We saw the same story in Brazil. The city of [Manaus] had over 70% of people’obviously’ infected. But, once P.1. hit, they had a major surge,” Jetelina wrote. “Populations that have high ‘natural’ immunity are getting re-infected. It doesn’t look like natural infection will protect us for long. Get your vaccine.”
Implications for Pandemic Control
On April 3, a patient at the San Francisco Bay area became the first confirmed instance of the B.1. 617 variant from the U.S.. The variant has since been found in 18 other countries and on all continents, except Africa.
Preliminary evidence thus far suggests that the Covaxin vaccine remains protective against the double mutant variant. Covaxin is an inactivated vaccine that contains killed coronavirus material and is produced in India. Scientists in India have also reported which Covishield, which employs exactly the exact same biotechnology since the AstraZeneca vaccine, has efficacy against the mutant.
Still, Jetelina urged vigilance:”The more this virus jumps from person-to-person (regardless of where it’s at in the globe), the more chances it has to mutate,” she wrote. “The more it mutates, the more chances it has to outsmart our vaccines.”