Why should India's Covid second wave worry you?

Kolkata, India: Devastating scenes of the pandemic-stricken nation, with people dying in alarming numbers, gasping for air because of oxygen shortage, and dire scenes of misery in hospitals, might look appalling. 

Infection and death rates are soaring in the vast country of 1.3 billion, in contrast with the United States and some European nations taking tentative steps back towards a normal life.

But for many of our readers, located thousands of thousands of miles away, in the US, Europe, the Middle East, and the rest of the world, India's condition right now might not seem alarming more than a sight worth sympathizing with. 

But that, unfortunately, is not just the concern. The present crisis in India is not a local one, experts say. It is a crisis for all. 

"The virus doesn't respect borders, or nationalities, or age, or sex or religion," Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the World Health Organization's chief scientist told the BBC. "And what's playing out in India now, unfortunately, has been played out in other countries."

After China, Italy in early 2020, followed by New York City, the COVID-19 Pandemic has shifted its epicenter several times, presently ravaging the Indian subcontinent. 

One thing is at least clear -- that the world is really a small place for a microscopic virus. And in the blink of an eye, it can change its course, spread faster, kill more, and so on. 

The strain that spread in New York was not the same in Italy. And that mutant that is currently spreading in India is unlike the others, -- it is more infectious. 

A nation like India with 1.3 billion people -- more than any other country in the world, except China, the COVID-19 sending shockwaves is an international concern. If a nation has a high level of infection, it is very likely that it will spread to other countries.

The new worrying variant

In India, a new strain of COVID-19 known as B.1.617 has appeared.

The B.1.617 variant has already been found in the US, Australia, Israel, and Singapore. As a result, some countries, including the United Kingdom, have imposed travel restrictions on India.

Some have nicknamed it the "double mutant" due to two primary mutations on the virus's spike. There is some laboratory evidence that it is somewhat more transmissible and that antibodies will have a more difficult time blocking the virus, but scientists are still determining how much immunity is lost, the BBC reported. 

 Dr. Jeff Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, told BBC News that he does not think that India's COVID-19 is an escape mutant or a strain that cannot be destroyed by vaccines. 

"I think we have to obviously watch carefully, but there's at present no reason to panic about it."

When did it first appear?

Viruses are constantly evolving, and the one that causes Covid-19 has already undergone thousands of mutations, some of which are more dangerous than others.

India added the B.1.617 genome to the global database in October (GISAID).

In late March, India's health ministry reported the variant, which was present in 15-20 percent of samples tested from the worst-affected state of Maharashtra.

Also read | India sets a new daily record with 332k cases on Friday.

Most recently, the figure was 60%.

As of this month, the variant had been observed in 18 other nations, according to GISAID.

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.

Also read | China offers help to Covid-ridden India

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.

What comes next?

Experts have earlier called upon the Indian PM for unable to control the pandemic, and instead influencing, participating in mass events across the nation, including the Kumbh Mela, and political rallies, all of which were 'superspreader events.'

The B.1.617 variant currently spreading in India might wane after some time, and another newer strain might evolve out of it. 

Because the greater the number of Covid cases in a region, the more likely new variants may arise.

This is because each infection allows the virus to develop, and a major concern is that mutations could emerge that make vaccines ineffective.

Experts have stressed the importance of not one, but a package of actions that need to be taken to cut the chain. 

It includes pushing in the number of people getting infected by imposing social distancing, lockdown, and vaccinating at a very high rate. 

In India, none of the abovementioned measures have strict enforcement so far, at least not nationwide. 

Speaking about India's vaccinating campaign, only 10% of the nation's population has received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, leaving the vast majority endangered. 

"It can be difficult, but it can be achieved," Rakesh Mishra, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad 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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