(This story originally appeared inon Dec 22, 2020)NEW DELHI: The new variant of coronavirus circulating in the UK is unlikely to impact India’svaccine strategyas the shots being developed are expected to be effective against the new strain and re-infections, in case they happen, would be milder, experts said.
They added that vaccine candidates under regulatory evaluation in India included shots with various other components apart from spike protein — which is related to this particular strain — and this would help the vaccines maintain their efficacy.
Even as the new variant set off an alarm, epidemiologists in India maintained that mutations were common to viruses and people must continue wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing and hand hygiene. “There is no reason to worry as of now. Every virus changes its genetic structure.This virus has a very low rate of mutation,” said top epidemiologist Dr Raman Gangakhedkar, formerly head-scientist at ICMR.
According to the hypotheses presented by the UK consortium, unusual genetic divergence of lineage B.1.1.7 (one of the mutations) may have resulted, at least in part, from virus evolution with a chronically-infected person. “Although such infections are rare, and onward transmission from them presumably even rarer, they are not improbable given the ongoing large number of new infections,” the UK report said.
The mutation may well be present in India and tests were needed to check for it, experts said. According to Dr Suneela Garg, professor of excellence and president of Indian Asso ciation of Preventive and Social Medicine, the mutated virus is 1.7 times more infective. “It can affect even those who have been exposed to Covid already. But the symptoms are likely to be mild,” she said.
Dr Garg added the mutation may not affect the effectiveness of vaccines under development. While reports from the UK suggest the new strain is about 70% more infectious, experts here said it may not be more virulent. “Even if the transmissibility is higher, the strain doesn’t cause severe complications,” Dr Gangakhedkar said.
“The way forward is to carry out molecular sequencing of the virus, as was done for polio virus, to get more information on its epidemiology and spread. It is also crucial to pursue smart testing and tracing to track the spread and contain the variant at its place of origin so that it does not reach vulnerable communities,” N K Ganguly, former Director General of ICMR said.
However, some experts also feel the government needs to do retrospective contact tracing and identification apart from suspension of flights. “We need to assess evidence from retrospective contact tracing. Detecting missed cases, their contacts and related outbreaks is important,” says Giridhar R Babu, member of National Task Force for Covid-19 and epidemiologist at Public Health Foundation of India.