What we know about the B.1.617 variant


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India is grappling with a devastating second wave of coronavirus that is far more deadly than the first – and scientists say the surge could be partly due to mutating strains.

The World Health Organization has just classified the B.1.617 strain, first identified in India, as a “variant of concern” – an indication that the variant has the “greatest public health impact”.

The health authority said the decision was made because the variant appears to have higher transmission rates and preliminary evidence suggests “potentially decreased effectiveness” of an antibody used in Covid-19 treatment. The variant also has a “possibly slightly reduced susceptibility” to neutralizing antibodies, the WHO said in its weekly update.

India is the second most severely affected country in the world, reporting more than 22.66 million infections and more than 246,000 deaths to date, according to data from the Indian Ministry of Health. Experts say the numbers are likely severely underreported as many never make it to the hospitals running out of beds and oxygen.

What do we know?

The earliest samples of the B.1.617 were discovered in India in October, and authorities announced in March this year that the variant had become more common in Maharashtra state.

The World Health Organization said Monday that it classifies the exposure as a “worrying variant”. It was previously referred to as a “variant of interest” which represents a lower level of alert.

Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, technical director of Covid-19 at WHO, said there was information suggesting that B.1.617 “increased portability” and “slightly decreased neutralization”.

A family member takes a patient with breathing difficulties to a free oxygen support center operated by a gurudwara, a place of worship for Sikhs amid the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic on the outskirts of New Delhi on May 10, 2021.

Arun Sankar | AFP | Getty Images

Variants of concern are more contagious, cause more serious illness, or reduce the effectiveness of public health measures, vaccines or drugs, according to the UN Health Agency.

“We have no evidence that our diagnostics, our therapeutics and our vaccines are not working,” she said at a press conference on Monday.

Other variants of concern are the B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the UK, and the B.1.351, which was discovered in South Africa.

According to the WHO, the threshold value for determining an interesting variant is relatively low compared to the classification of a questionable variant.

According to Gisaid, a platform that allows countries to share data about viruses, the B.1.617 strain from India has been detected in about 40 countries, including the US, UK and Singapore.

Did it trigger India’s second wave?

There are several factors that have led to a sharp increase in Indian Covid-19 cases – and mutating variants are just one of them.

WHO said several variants circulating in India show increased transmittability, but the B.1.617 strain has “a much higher growth rate”.

We’ve turned our backs on the virus, but the virus hasn’t turned our backs on us. And now we’re paying the price.

K Srinath Reddy

President of the Public Health Foundation of India

B.1.617 has three sublines, each with slightly different mutations, according to the WHO. When the cases in India experienced a “big boom”, the lineages B.1.617.1 and B.1.617.2 became more common, according to the health department.

The variant has sometimes been referred to as a “double mutant” because it contains two mutations – E484Q and L452R – that make the virus more contagious and better bypass the body’s defenses. A third mutation in the variant, the P681R, can potentially lead to “increased transmission,” the WHO said.

Virologists speaking to CNBC said the terms “double mutation” or “triple mutation” are scientifically incorrect. According to reports, the B.1.617 has more than a dozen mutations.

In its update, the WHO identified “several religious and political rallying events that aggravated social mixing” in India and highlighted underuse or reduced compliance with public health and social health measures.

“The exact contributions of these factors to increased transmission in India are not known exactly,” he added.

K Srinath Reddy, President of the Public Health Foundation of India, said it was widespread that the January pandemic was “forever” over.

“It seemed that policymakers, the industry and the public were eager to get back to normal life, get the economy going again and really ignore the threat that was still there,” he told CNBCs ” Capital Connection “last week.

“As I said, we turned our back on the virus, but the virus hasn’t turned its back on us. And now we’re paying the price,” said Reddy.

Do Vaccines Work?

Ugur Sahin, CEO of BioNTech, told CNBC last month that he was “confident” that the company’s vaccine, which was jointly developed with US drug maker Pfizer, would be effective against the Indian variant.

“We had similar double mutants in our previous tests and are confident from the data we had in the past that we could see a similar way of neutralizing this virus,” he said, even though BioNTech did not have sufficient data on B. 1,617 at this point.

The WHO said preliminary laboratory studies showed that 28 recipients of Covaxin were able to neutralize the B.1.617 variant. Covaxin is a vaccine developed by Bharat Biotech of India and the Indian State Council for Medical Research.

Several studies have also been done with antibodies produced by other vaccines, and some suggest a limited reduction in neutralization, which could mean vaccines may be less effective. However, WHO said that “the real world impact may be limited”.

“Possible effects of the B.1.617 line on the effectiveness of vaccines or therapeutics or on the risk of re-infection remain uncertain,” it continues.

Former White House Director of Health Policy Dr. Kavita Patel said the current vaccines have “some effectiveness” but there have been “breakthrough infections” from variant B.1.617.

“We are very concerned. This is exactly the kind of facility for what we call ‘escape immunity’ – where the variant is so worrying and the body’s immune system cannot fight it,” she told CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia. last week.

– CNBC’s Saheli Roy Choudhury and Berkeley Lovelace Jr. contributed to this report.

Clarification: This story has been edited to clarify the attribution, which states that the B.1.617 has more than a dozen mutations.

This story has been updated to include the World Health Organization updates on B.1.167 in their weekly update on May 11, 2021.


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Robert Dunfee