Although the Union Ministry of Health has confirmed the presence of 96 instances of the ‘UK variant’ – a form of Sars-Cov2 associated with high infections – in India, it has yet to start significantly search for the variant in people without such a history. So far, these variants have only been identified in people with a history of international travel after November.

The new strain, B.1.1.7, is said to have several mutations that would likely make it more infectious and is responsible for a spike in coronavirus infections in the UK.

Local spread

Scientists associated with the sequencing exercise, on condition of anonymity, said The Hindu that it was “highly unlikely” that the variant was not locally present in India in people with no travel history and that enough was not being done to actively research it.

On December 22, the government announced that it had set up a consortium of 10 laboratories across the country to sequence approximately 45,000 (or 5% of positive cases) from November 23 to December 22.

This is in addition to all those who have come to India from abroad since November 23 and tested positive, as well as those who traveled in September and October. So far, efforts have focused on sampling 3,000 odd genomes with such a history.

The identification of such variants is important because in case of a rapid peak of cases, it can be analyzed whether certain variants are responsible. It would also be necessary to cultivate these viruses in the laboratory so that scientists can then design appropriate tools to make diagnostic devices or even improve vaccine development efforts. Whole genome sequencing involves larger machines, more expertise, and is the only way to quickly and accurately detect emerging variants of the coronavirus.

‘Just a handful’

“So far we have only processed a few samples in the general population (out of the 5% lot). This is too little and given that the variant has been around since September and many have arrived since, there is a good chance that the variant has spread locally in India, ”said a scientist closely associated with the exercise but anonymous due to chat restrictions. these with the media.

Another scientist from another lab involved in the sequencing business said reagents needed for whole-genome sequencing are scarce and government restrictions since July have banned their supply.

“Some reagents are only available abroad. No Indian company manufactures them and yet we have been asked to source locally. This considerably hampered the sequencing even though the machines were available. “

Last week, however, a government notification facilitated this and clarified a “process” for acquiring them, the person – again who could not be identified for the reasons cited above – added, saying: ” It will take time, however, to make up for lost time. “

According to a detailed proposal unveiled by the government on December 22, a consortium of 10 laboratories with the capacity to sequence around 30,000 genomes per month – called INSACOG (Indian Sars-cov2 Genomics Consortium) – was created in particular following reports by ‘variant infections in UK and South Africa.

This plan, however, indicates that the government would prioritize sequencing the genomes of those with a travel history before moving on to the general population.

Renu Swarup, secretary of the Department of Biotechnology, which coordinates INSACOG, said the supply issues had been addressed. “We are constantly on the lookout for not only the UK variant, but also others of interest reported by other countries. Population-based sequencing has started and so far there seems to be no evidence of wider spread.

“We have grown viruses from some of the samples from the National Institute of Virology. The sequencing activity is ongoing and so far we can confirm that none of these variants have been identified in people with no history of international travel, ”said Dr Balram Bhargava, Chief Executive Officer of Indian Council. of medical research. The Hindu on the sidelines of a press briefing.

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