As the vaccination campaign continues in India, sudden spikes in fresh COVID-19 infections in some states have raised concerns. Amidst these, another aspect has added to the fear of new epidemics – namely the emergence of mutant variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The director of the Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Dr Randeep Guleria, sounded the alarm bells when he mentionned that new variants that have emerged in the country may be more contagious and may also re-infect those who have developed antibodies due to a previous infection.

According to reports, two leading experts said new strains of the novel coronavirus have been detected in Maharashtra. This was claimed by Shashank Joshi and TP Lahane, both renowned doctors.

However, not much is known about the new variants that have appeared in India. Another study from the Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, mentionned that there are over 7,000 mutations of the novel coronavirus that have taken place in India. But, not all mutations lead to a new variant, most of them are random changes in the genome of the virus. To become new strains or variants, mutations must confer significant changes to the virus in terms of activity or survival. The CCMB study too revealed that a variant named N440K circulates widely in southern India.

NewsVSlick spoke to renowned immunologist Satyajit Rath, adjunct faculty at IISER Pune for his commentary on the new strains in India. Professor Rath said: “This refers to the CCMB press release et cetera, I presume. It would be helpful to see this in context. All viral populations everywhere are variable, in that the viral DNA or RNA sequences show small changes each time they are copied as the viral population grows. With a virus that grows as widely as SARS-CoV-2, it is expected that “variants” of the virus with certain sequence variations will be detectable when we look closely. This level of variation is observed in all countries. “

He further added about the unknowns of the strains: “So far, nothing seems to be known about these variations seen in India, other than the unsurprising fact that they are occurring. If one of these variants presents an advantage for the propagation of the virus, it will become more and more visible (and can then be called “strains”); – this is probably what happened with the B117, B1351 or P1 variants around the world. A few changes will likely allow the virus to infect cells more efficiently and therefore spread more quickly. It will likely take many changes before the virus becomes adequately resistant to immune protection due to a previous infection or vaccination. “

“In either case, the changes that are beneficial to the virus will become increasingly important over time in the viral population, as these variants / strains will spread more efficiently. The only possibility that the recent Indian analysis seems to have raised is the N440K variation, but it is not yet clear if it actually spreads more easily. The extent of variation of a given virus isolate in this analysis in India still appears to be relatively limited, ”he added.

Also read: COVID-19: India registers 10,584 new cases

However, the possibility that the new strains are more contagious cannot be ignored given the global scenario where the new strains in the UK, Brazil and South Africa have created sudden spikes in cases in these countries. In the wake of such dangers, Prof Rath added that it is essential to monitor emerging genomic changes in the virus.

“The variants of SARS-CoV-2 appeared early in the pandemic. It has always been essential to carefully monitor variations in viral sequences by subjecting many more virus samples to complete sequencing than has been done so far (India appears to have performed just over 6000 viral sequences so far, while in the world, more than five lakh sequences have been performed.). This sequencing has to be done with careful planning, rather than randomly, ”he said.

What Professor Rath said can serve as an indicator for the government to establish immediate planning and this must be linked to actual testing and monitoring of contracts. “In addition, this sequencing effort must be linked to actual testing to see if the variations detected have significance or importance for the spread of the virus. Finally, these tests must in turn be connected to the next-generation vaccine design pipeline to ensure that variants that may be resistant to protection by current vaccines can be rapidly subjected to the design, testing and deployment of new ones. vaccines. It has to be an ongoing process, not just a knee-jerk response to a perceived ‘crisis’, ”Rath added.

When asked if there should be an immediate change in strategy that health authorities should think about, Professor Rath remarked: “Aside from the points I have said, furthermore, we need to stop pretend we ‘won’ a ‘breakthrough decision’. victory “over“ corona, ”and that life can“ get back to normal. ”Continued care and vigilance is needed, and it is the government that must stop giving conflicting signals and commit to the long and hard. uncertain road ahead with evidence-based policies and strategies.

The possibility that the new strains will interfere with vaccines also cannot be ignored. There could be a situation where the vaccines currently in use could prove ineffective against the new strains, which Dr Randeep Guleria also pointed out in his statement.