Immune pressure due to non-judicious use of therapies can lead to virus mutation: ICMR chief

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New Delhi, Dec 29 (PTI) Non-judicious use of therapies, that have not been scientifically established for treating COVID-19, put immune pressure on the virus which can lead to mutations, said Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) chief Balram Bhargava on Tuesday amid concerns over the United Kingdom variant of the coronavirus.

Respiratory viruses may go through minor genetic mutations from time to time. But after several drifts, they can become a cause of concern as has happened with the new UK strain of the coronavirus. It has a higher transmissibility rate of about 60 per cent, he said at a press briefing.

'That is a point of concern. We are carrying out tests in India regularly for those variants,' Bhargava said.

The ICMR chief explained that these variations occur because of immune pressure on the virus.

'Immune pressure may be related to the environment, host, treatment or other modalities. So, it is important from the scientific community perspective that we do not put too much immune pressure on the virus.

'We have to maintain judicious use of therapies which are going to benefit. If the benefit is not established, we should not use those therapies. Otherwise, they will put a tremendous immune pressure on the virus and it will tend to mutate more,' he said.

Regarding the effectiveness of vaccines in the wake of emergence of a mutated strain, Bhargava said available data suggests that much of the frontrunner vaccine candidates will continue to be effective against the virus.

'Although much of the vaccines that are the front-runners are targeting the S-protein and also the mRNA, we find that they will continue to be effective, according to the data that is available. We have to be very careful to look for any immunity breakthrough that may happen by vaccination,' he said.

Six people who returned to India from the United Kingdom have tested positive for the new mutated strain of coronavirus, the Union Health Ministry said on Tuesday.

It said the UK variant genome of SARS-CoV-2 was detected in three samples in the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences Hospital (NIMHANS) Bengaluru, two in the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB in Hyderabad and one in the National Institute of Virology (NIV) Pune.

All these people have been kept in single room isolation at designated health care facilities by respective state governments and their close contacts have also been put under quarantine, the ministry said.

'Comprehensive contact tracing has been initiated for co-travellers, family contacts and others. Genome sequencing on other specimens is going on. The situation is under careful watch and regular advice is being provided to the states for enhanced surveillance, containment, testing and dispatch of samples to INSACOG labs,' the ministry said.

Presence of the new UK variant has already been reported by Denmark, Netherlands, Australia, Italy, Sweden, France, Spain, Switzerland, Germany, Canada, Japan, Lebanon and Singapore, so far. PTI PLB NSD