COVID-19 variant causing alarm in UK is not a strain; may already be in India, say experts

This virus has no altered biological characteristics – it infects human beings efficiently and that efficiency increased the mutated virus fits exactly like the previous virus,” said Dr T Jacob John

Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Representative Image (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
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Ashlin Mathew

A new variant of SARS-CoV-2, which originated in the United Kingdom, is not a new strain as it is being called by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and World Health Organisation, said experts. It’s only a new variant or mutation, they pointed out. The new variant, termed by scientists as B.1.1.7 or VUI–202012/01, is understood to be 50% to 70% more transmittable compared to the other variants of the Coronavirus.

“In epidemiology and virology parlance, this is not a new strain. Even though WHO has called it a new strain, it is not an accurate terminology. A strain has altered biological characteristics. This virus has no altered biological characteristics – it infects human beings efficiently and that efficiency increased, this virus still has its disease producing ability and the mutated virus fits exactly like the previous virus,” said Dr T Jacob John, virologist and former professor at the Christian Medical College in Vellore.

This new variant can be called a new genotype or genetic variant, added John, which is not uncommon for an RNA virus. When anyone calls it a strain, it means a sub-species, but this is not, he pointed out.

Explaining it further, Dr Jaiprakash Muliyil, epidemiologist and chairperson of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the National Institute of Epidemiology said, “The word strain is strainful to hear. Living things like microbes mutate quite often as it is the survival of the fittest. They have said that this new variant has a slightly increased rate of transmission. I agree that has happened. Mutations which have no special properties will not survive. So, obviously the new mutation is spreading quickly in parts of England.”

The question that arises is if the new variant will increase the risk of clinical disease. “Till now we don’t have any evidence that the pattern of illness has changed. Secondly, current evidence does not state that fatality rate is increasing either,” said Muliyil.

Having clarified the issue of terminology, all those who have been previously been infected will remain immune to the mutated variant, argued John. “I guarantee this. So, there is nothing to fear. It is not like the original arrival of the Coronavirus. It is the same old Coronavirus with slightly increased ability to spread and it depends upon the proportion of the people who are yet uninfected. I don’t think this virus will cause any new noticeable shift in the epidemic curve,” said John.

The government said the new ‘strain’ of COVID-19 has not reached India. Dr VK Paul, member of Niti Aayog, said the new strain or mutation of Coronavirus seen in the United Kingdom "has not been seen in India, so far”, and added that there was no cause for panic.

However, both Muliyil and John disagree with him. This virus and its new variants which are more infectious will travel globally as long as people are travelling, they said.

“It has already reached Australia. It has most likely reached India. We do not know if it has reached India because we are not testing. We are not scientifically advanced enough to test new variants. The Chennai-UK arrival sample has been sent to Pune for testing. Each European country has a sophisticated Covid-19 testing lab, and we only have one in Pune. They are over-worked,” pointed out John.

The other concern that has been raised is if the mutant virus will infect previously COVID-19 infected persons. “So far it has become clear that those who had the disease have not gotten infected with the new virus. This means they are protected against the new variant or mutation. That is why it is not doing a great deal of job in India too. It must have come, but hasn’t infected people. To catch this new variant, we have to do sequencing. The British had been carefully looking, so they found it,” pointed out Muliyil.

So, will we have to remodel the vaccines? At the moment, Pfizer group is saying their vaccine will protect against the new variant too.

“In case there is a problem, ‘killed vaccines’ such as the AstraZeneca/Oxford and Sputnik vaccines might work better. Our body produces not only the spiked protein antibodies to counter Covid-19, but a variety of antibodies, so the killed vaccine may have an advantage. But, if the spike protein is really disfigured, and the vaccine is not working, then they will have to remodel it,” explained Muliyil.

In case the spike protein is extremely different, it is easier to remodel RNA vaccines. “So, it will be possible for both Pfizer and Moderna to come out with a new version in a short time. But, for killed vaccine it will be difficult as they will have to be reengineered. But at the moment, from what I hear, there is no indication that the existing vaccine won’t work,” underscored Muliyil.

As the virus is a little more efficient in transmission, we have to continue with hand hygiene, wear masks and maintain physical distance of at least 2 metres, especially in closed spaces. “If these are practiced, this new variant is of no consequence to India,” underscored John.

“There is no need to panic, but everyone needs to practice what they know they must for self- protection. That is where people have lowered their guard. Markets, shopkeepers, and people flocking public places are not following the norms. That is where the government has erred. They have not told people facts. Social media is full of false information. It is the government’s duty to teach people correct information and for that the government should learn correct information,” John said.

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Published: 23 Dec 2020, 8:42 PM