A triple-mutant coronavirus is now present in India, health experts said on Wednesday, adding to the worries of a country reeling from the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.
India on Wednesday for the first time reported more than 2,000 coronavirus-related deaths in one day.
The B1617 variant, first detected in Maharashtra, contains mutations from two separate virus variants — E484Q and L452R. The third mutation evolved from the double mutation where three different Covid strains combined to form a new variant.
Two of these triple-mutant varieties have been found in samples collected from Maharashtra, Delhi, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh.
The RNA virus has the potential to acquire mutations as it replicates and spreads. These mutations can, sometimes, result in virus variants with better adaptability to its environment.
“As the virus spreads, it gets more opportunities to acquire mutations and evolve at a faster rate,” said Dr Veena P Menon, faculty-in-charge, Clinical Virology Laboratory, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, Kochi.
“This is a natural aspect of virus life-cycle but it is very important that we track these changes — virus surveillance — and follow the important viral characteristics associated with these mutations,” Menon added.
“While the SARS-CoV2, causing the Covid-19 infections, has evolved at a much slower rate compared to Influenza or HIV viruses but as the number of infections rises, we are observing a rapid emergence of numerous viral variants.”
With the increase in the number of infections and spread, there are more opportunities for the virus to mutate.
“As the infections are increasing at an alarming rate, there is a very high likelihood that we will encounter more virus variants in our population,” Menon said. “Some of these variants get selected for faster transmissibility (spread) or ‘increased severity’ (more pathogenic) and also “immune (vaccine) escape.”
The evidence so far suggests that none of the important virus variants are associated with increased severity. However, an increased transmissibility is associated with the UK variant (lineage B1.1.7) while the Brazilian and South African variants exhibit ability to escape vaccine-induced immunity.
“Mutation in the respiratory virus is a natural process,” said Dr Harshal R Salve, associate professor at the Centre for Community Medicine, AIIMS, New Delhi. “This process is augmented in situations of high spread and presence of vaccinated people in the community. We will see more variants in India in future too.”
Stricter implementation of public health infection control measures like usage of masks, social distancing and vaccinations are all key to prevent the spread. Besides, the need is to continue monitoring the virus evolution, the experts said.
“Combining genetic surveillance methods with evaluation of the biological and clinical characteristics of these virus variants will aid in better understanding virus variants and its clinical and public health impact,” Menon said.
Vaccinations can play a great role in curbing the spread of Covid, the experts underlined.
In a related development, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) said in a report that Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech, is able to “effectively neutralize” the double mutant strains, including the UK variant and the Brazil variant, of the coronavirus.