Super Spreader Events and Not Mutations May be Behind Surge in Covid-19 Cases in India, Say Experts

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The increase in Covid-19 cases in India in the last one week, especially in states of Maharashtra, Punjab, Kerala, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, is raising concerns whether the spurt in new cases is linked to new variants of SARS-CoV-2.

According to a report by Moneycontrol, the spike in cases may be attributed to super spreader events more than mutations of the virus.

Experts such as Dr V Ravi, Retired Professor of Neurobiology at NIMHAN and Nodal Officer for Genomic Confirmation of SARS-CoV-2, Government of Karnataka, told Moneycontrol there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there is a new variant in Maharashtra, which is causing a spike in cases. He says that the latest upsurge is triggered by super spreading events that have led to community spill over and the subsequent lack of testing, tracking and tracing.

Viruses mutate all the time, more so for viruses that contain RNA as their genetic material like coronavirus. Most mutations are so small that they don’t significantly affect how the virus works, or sometimes make the virus weaker.

In certain cases, a mutation helps the virus to acquire the ability to dodge the immune system, infect people and reproduce. These strains tend to become dominant. For instance, the SARS-CoV-2 virus makes around one or two mutations a month. This is normal and much lower than for other viruses, such as HIV and influenza. The more the virus circulates, the more the chance of its mutating. Measures such as face masking, hand hygiene and social distancing, coupled with mass vaccination, will help in cutting the scope for viruses to mutate.

Two new mutant variants of the SAR-CoV-2 virus, N440K and E484Q, have been detected in Maharashtra and some other states. The government had earlier clarified that the current upsurge of Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra cannot be attributed to these two strains.

ICMR has further explained that these two virus strains have been detected in other countries too and are not India-specific. Moreover, they have been found earlier in some states in India. The E484Q strain was detected in four sequences in Maharashtra as early as March and July 2020. The N440K mutation has been reported on 13 different occasions between May and September 2020 in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Assam. ICMR said it has been closely monitoring the situation.

It is well established that the variants of the UK, South Africa and Brazil are highly transmissible. The South Africa strain is known to reduce the efficacy of vaccines as well.