Scientists Quell Concerns on New Covid-19 Variant, Say Staying Cautious Sufficient

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Standard defense mechanisms such as masks, sanitisation and physical distancing will work to contain the coronavirus strain detected in six people who came from the UK, scientists said on Tuesday, giving assurance that the mutant is not clinically more severe and there is no need to worry. The Union Health Ministry on Tuesday said six people who returned to India from the UK recently have tested positive for the new mutated variant called VUI-202012/01, sparking worries that India's fight against the disease has gotten more complex just as its daily COVID-19 count was falling. According to the Health Ministry, the SARS-CoV-2's UK variant genome 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), Hyderabad, and one in the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune.

Several scientists stepped in to assuage concerns and said there is no evidence yet that the variant is more deadly. Anurag Agrawal, director of New Delhi's CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) was one of them. Staying cautious and following good practices should be sufficient (to tackle the variant), Agrawal told PTI, adding that the UK, where the variant was identified first, has not reported any clinical indication of the variant being more severe. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has said preliminary modelling results communicated by the UK on December 19 suggest the variant is 70 per cent more transmissible than previously circulating variants. However, it also said there is no indication of increased infection severity observed related to the variant with multiple mutations in the spike protein.

The spike protein comes in contact with human cells to enter the body and infect. Virologist Upasana Ray agreed with the assessment that there is no cause for alarm because there is nothing so far to back concerns that the variant is more deadly. The senior scientist at CSIR-IICB, Kolkata, went a step further and said, "It has been said the transmission rate is more. However, for that also there is no laboratory based evidence." Ray also noted that a check on travel has already been suggested and said tests have been recommended for anyone entering the country from the UK.

"The most important step required is implementing the basic precautions like using masks (that many people have stopped using) social distancing etc. A watch on the variant is also important to monitor its transmission and pathogenicity," Ray told PTI. There should be no concerns on the vaccine front as well. Asserting that it has so far not been found that the new variant increases the severity of the disease, the government's Principal Scientific Advisor K Vijay Raghavan said at a press conference, "There is no evidence that current vaccines will fail to protect against COVID 19 variants reported from UK or SA.

Most vaccines do target the spike protein in which there are changes in the variants but vaccines stimulate our immune system to produce a wide range of protective antibodies," he said. Rakesh Mishra, director of Hyderabad's CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Microbiology added that there is no surprise to find the new variant of the virus in some of the samples tested in India.

According to him, large-scale testing is required, and people need not worry too much about the new strain. "It (new strain of COVID-19) is just fresh, otherwise, it is the same virus and not much of an issue. Same symptoms, mortality, everything is the same we just have to take precautions," Mishra told PTI. Though the new variant is more transmissible, it has not shown to cause more severe infection compared to other mutants, agreed Divya Tej Sowpati, a scientist at CSIR-CCMB. Please note that though more transmissible, this strain is not shown to be clinically more severe. Also, the same defences work to contain the UK strain too - masks, sanitization, and social distancing, Sowpati tweeted on Tuesday.

Immunologist Satyajit Rath said the variant is likely to be a cause for concern in terms of policy responses to COVID-19, but not in terms of individual risk of serious illness. However, the basis for this concern remains somewhat circumstantial at this point, since it is based on the correlation between the increasing prominence of this variant with growing case numbers in southern England over the past few weeks.

More direct evidence, if any, is still awaited, Rath from New Delhi's National Institute of Immunology (NII) said. He also expressed doubts about whether the new variant will have any impact on the accuracy of the standard RT PCR diagnostic tests for COVID-19 being conducted in India. It is true that some tests are based on detection of regions that are a bit different in this variant, but those differences are not large enough, I think, for the tests to be affected to any substantial extent, he explained.

Agrawal concurred with Rath, saying no sweeping changes were needed in RT-PCR diagnosis due to the new variant. A total of 16,432 new infections were reported in a span of 24 hours, the lowest in little over six months, while the death toll increased to 1,48,153with 252 new fatalities, according to the Union Health Ministry on Tuesday. The number of people who have recuperated from the disease surged to 98,07,569 pushing the national recovery rate to95.92 per cent, while the COVID-19casefatality rateis 1.45 per cent.