What’s known about the new coronavirus variant first found in India?
For the first time in October 2020, Indian scientists detected few samples that were positive for the coronavirus variant called B.1.617, which was first detected in India. Numbers of cases of the B.1.617 variant rose and additional sub-lineages of this variant were found. Therefore, India initiated the surveillance by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genome Sequencing Consortia (INSACOG) in late January 2021.
While these new variants were detected, the overall number of cases had dropped; thus, businesses, markets, railways, dance clubs, malls and gyms were running at full capacity. Even festivals, e.g., Holi and Kumph Mela, with thousands of participants, were organized without following COVID-19 safety protocols, such as social distancing and the use of facial masks. A few months later, in April/ May, India faced the second wave of COVID-19 and recorded about 400,000 new infections on the 9th of May with a total of over 22 million people infected. Currently, the Indian health system is overwhelmed, including the lack of sufficient oxygen supply, insufficient numbers of people vaccinated and dramatically increased numbers of deaths while crematoria are running at full speed.
The variant B.1.617 is of concern according to the World Health Organization (WHO)
To investigate transmission, virus circulation within a population, and the evolution of the virus, various countries around the world, including India, implement whole-genome sequencing and analyses of spike protein mutations. These types of analyses provide specific information on the genetic code of the virus, and with that, the proteins expressed on the virus. These combined analyses have shown that the B.1.617 variant starts to become the dominant coronavirus variant in large parts of India and has also reached some other countries e.g., Singapore, Australia, the UK and Italy.
This variant carries mutations within the spike protein that have changed its function. It may result in increased or easier entry of the SARS-CoV-2 virus into human cells, resulting in increased transmissibility. In other words, it can more easily spread between people.
According to the scientific journal Nature, experiments using animal models suggest that the B.1.617 variant might cause more severe disease. However, it is important to realize that results from animal studies do not always happen the same way in people. Virologists performed transmissibility and antibody neutralization laboratory studies in the lab in Petri dishes that suggest this variant has increased transmissibility and that antibodies against the original virus might have less neutralization potential to this B.1.617 variant, meaning antibodies are less effective against it (data from a pre-print that has not been checked by other researchers yet). However, these studies still remain to be reviewed and approved by experts in the field, and we have to further observe the effects in the “real life” situation within the population.
In conclusion, the WHO made clear at the press conference on the 10th of May that the B.1.617 variant is of concern and that we need to keep following the COVID-19 safety protocols, including vaccination, in order to protect ourselves from all the coronavirus variants circulating now and in the near future.
What consequences does this have for other countries?
As we have seen for other variants such as the one first found in the UK (B.1.1.7), the variant first found in Brazil (P.1) and the variant first found in South Africa (B.1.351), that are now the dominant ones in certain parts of the world, we can also expect the B.1.617 variant to spread to more countries and for it to become the most dominant variant worldwide. Based on the Regeneron COVID-19 Dashboard with enabled data from the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID), this virus variant and its sub-lineages have already been detected in European countries (UK, Italy), Asia (large parts of India, Singapore, Bahrain), Oceania (Australia), North America (USA, Canada), and South America (Colombia).
The current vaccines designed against the original Wuhan-isolated virus might still result in a good protection against the circulating variants and might at least result in a milder COVID-19 disease course. However, we need to cooperate in this pandemic across countries and vaccinate large parts of the world population to stop the evolution of the virus and consequently stop allowing the virus to give rise to new and fitter variants than the original Wuhan-isolate. If we only vaccinate certain parts of the world population, we will allow the virus to evolve and give rise to more and more variants that could potentially bring the entire world back to ZERO and a start of a new pandemic.
Conclusively, we are far away from the end of this pandemic and we all need to pull at the same strings to fight the SARS-CoV-2 and show solidarity to our cohabitants and countries with limited resources. Stay safe and healthy!
Contributed by: Text: Julia Brinkmeier
WHO - Press Conference: COVID-19 Update (Geneva, 10 May 2021)
Regeneron COVID-19 Dashboard