India's new Covid variant and virus surge: what we know

New Delhi:  India is dealing with a record-breaking increase in Covid-19 infections, which has overwhelmed hospitals and resulted in extreme bed and oxygen shortages.

The main concern is whether a new variant with potentially dangerous mutations — B.1.617 — is to blame for the world's fastest-growing epidemic, which added more than 300,000 new infections on Thursday.

The B.1.617 version has already been identified in the United States, Australia, Israel, and Singapore. Because of this, some nations, including the United Kingdom, have placed travel restrictions on India.

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Here's what we know so far about India's new Covid variant and skyrocketing spread:

When did it appear? 

Viruses evolve all the time, and the one that causes Covid-19 has already undergone thousands of mutations, some of which are more troubling than others.

In October, India announced the B.1.617 genome to the global database (GISAID).

The variant was identified by India's health ministry in late March, and it was found in 15-20% of samples analyzed from the worst-affected state of Maharashtra.

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Most recently, the figure was 60%.

According to GISAID, the variant has also been observed in 18 other countries as of this month.

Should we be concerned? 

The World Health Organization has classified B.1.617 as a "variant of concern."

Other variants found in Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom have been labeled "of concern" because they are more transmissible, virulent, or can reduce antibody efficacy.

B.1.617 has multiple mutations, including two notable ones (E484Q and L452R), earning it the moniker "double mutant."

The first notable mutation is identical to another (E484K, also known as "Eek") found in South African, Brazilian, and, more recently, UK forms.

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Since it allows the virus to bypass the body's immune system, the "Eek" has been dubbed an "escape mutation."

Californian research discovered the other notable mutation to be an effective spreader.

More evidence is required, according to scientists, to decide whether these mutations make the B.1.617 variant more harmful.

Is it to blame for India's rise?

Rakesh Mishra, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, is one of the researchers looking into the B.1.617 variant.

So far, he claims it is "better in terms of spreading than other versions."

It will gradually become the more popular one and will supplant the other variants, he told AFP.

However, it is unclear if India's current wave is related to this version, or whether it is being guided by human behavior or anything else.

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Concerns about "mega spreaders" have been posed by health experts following recent large religious festivals and political protests with largely maskless crowds.

Nonetheless, some countries are not taking any risks with B.1.617. The UK explicitly cited concerns of the new variant when it banned travel from India this week.

The United States also advised against traveling to India on Wednesday, adding that "even completely vaccinated travelers may be at risk of contracting and transmitting Covid-19 variants."

Do vaccines work against it? 

According to Stephen Goldstein, an evolutionary virology researcher at the University of Utah, one of the mutations is similar to "Eek," which is suspected of decreasing antibody resistance against a previous infection or vaccination.

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According to Mishra, scientists were evaluating vaccine efficacy against the variant.

Despite this, experts say vaccines still provide some protection, especially against serious cases.

What comes next? 

Since more variants appear as there are more infected hosts, Mishra believes India must monitor its outbreak.

Another version, B.1.618, recently made headlines when it became third-most prevalent in India.

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Goldstein cited the United Kingdom's progress in containing a recent outbreak amid the existence of a more transmissible variant.

"It can be difficult, but it can be achieved," he told AFP.

"I believe the vaccination campaign was beneficial... but it was the lockdown that allowed them to slow the rise of cases and begin to turn the corner."

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