Explained: The Concerning Delta Plus Variant And Risk Associated With This Mutated Coronavirus

·4-min read

Here is all we know so far about the Delta Plus variant, which has mutated from the Delta variant of the novel coronavirus.

The mutated version of the novel coronavirus, dubbed the Delta Plus variant, is now identified as a variant of concern in India. The Union Health Ministry informed Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh about the variant's presence and suggested immediate containment measures, including preventing large gatherings and intermingling people, widespread Covid-19 testing, contact tracing, as well as vaccine coverage on a priority basis.

The announcement came as the Delta Plus variant, also known as AY.1, has been detected in 22 samples in India. Sixteen cases of this variant have been found in Maharashtra's Ratnagiri and Jalgaon districts and others in Kerala as well as in Madhya Pradesh, said Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan. The discovery of the variant in locations where the virus has been present for a long time and has a high positivity rate is a matter of concern, as mutations tend to occur in areas where the virus has established itself and has a high positivity rate.

The new mutated version of the virus was first detected in the country during genome sequencing of samples by Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia or INSACOG. According to The Times of India, Bhushan said: "The labs of INSACOG bring this information to the notice of health ministry which then in timely manner indicates to the concerned states what are the activities that have to be initiated to curb the spread. The public health response is standardised for the variants".

What Is Known So Far

It is the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 (B.1.617.2), which has further mutated to form the Delta Plus variant. The K417N mutation in spike protein distinguishes the Delta Plus variant—the spike protein or S protein facilitates the virus's entry into the human cell. Virologists are currently investigating whether this new variant is better than Delta or Beta (B.1.351) at evading pre-existing immunity.

The Indian health ministry has identified three major characteristics of the variant:

  • Increased transmissibility

  • Strong binding to receptors of lung cells

  • A potential reduction in monoclonal antibody response

As per India Today, Dr Rommel Tickoo, director of internal medicine, Max Healthcare said: "As per the data available in the public domain, monoclonal antibodies might not be effective against the Delta Plus variant. But we need more scientific data to back this claim".

The variant is still being studied, and scientists are trying to identify the key difference between the symptoms caused by the Covid-19 and Delta Plus variant. The health ministry stated that besides India, the Delta Plus variant has been found in the United States, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Switzerland, Japan, Poland, Nepal, China and Russia.

Scientists at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) are seeking to isolate and culture the newly mutated virus at the National Institute of Virology (NIV) Pune facility to see if the new strain can be neutralised by Bharat Biotech's Covaxin jab. Bhushan said: "Broadly speaking, both Covishield and Covaxin are effective against the Delta variant. We will shortly share to what extent and the proportion of antibody titers they produce".

But Prof Shahid Jameel, one of India's best virologists and a former member of the INSACOG, is concerned that the Delta Plus version may be able to evade both Covid vaccination and previous infection-induced immunity. According to The Economic Times, the two vaccines in India have shown lower efficacy against Delta and Beta variants. Prof Jameel said that now "whether this coming together of key mutations would be neutral, additive or more than the sum of both remains to be seen".

Recently, in a series of tweets, American expert Eric Feigl-Ding claimed that the AstraZeneca vaccine—which is being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India (SII) and being sold under the brand name 'Covishield' in the country—is only 60 per cent effective against the Delta variant. While citing a study, he said: "The efficacy of AZ [AstraZeneca vaccine] against Delta variant is not 90 per cent (it is 60 per cent), Pfizer is 88 per cent in one non-trial study. However, one dose of the vaccine (both types averaged) is just 33 per cent. And many countries are just one dose vaccinated." These findings have sparked fears that the AstraZeneca vaccine will be ineffective against the newly discovered Delta Plus mutation.

However, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove from the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that in terms of vaccination effectiveness, it is known that the vaccines remain effective against serious sickness and death for all versions of concern, including the Delta variant, "which is a very good indicator". But she also cautioned that "we need two doses to be administered to have the full level of protection. We do see reduced efficacy with one dose".

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