All you need to know about the new coronavirus strain

Just when we were building hopes about the vaccine for Covid-19, the UK government announced that they found a highly contagious new variant of the Coronavirus circulating in England. Citing the rapid spread of the virus through London and surrounding areas, Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed the country’s most stringent lockdown.

Dr Rahul Pandit, Director-Critical Care, Fortis Hospitals Mumbai, & Member of Maharashtra's Covid-19 task force said that scientists are worried about these variants but not surprised by them. Like all viruses, coronavirus is a shape-shifter. Some genetic changes are inconsequential. Researchers have recorded thousands of tiny modifications in the genetic material of the coronavirus as it has hopscotched across the world. “The British variant has affected how the virus locks onto human cells and infects them. These mutations may allow the variant to replicate and transmit more efficiently,” he said.

The state completed a total of 1,28,23,834, while the overall positivity rate of the state stood at 15.09%.

“A total of 4,471 UK returnees who had landed between November 15 and December 23 have been traced till date. RT-PCR tests have been conducted on 3,273 of them, and 67 samples were found positive. Of them, 29 are from Mumbai, 13 in Pune, seven in Thane, eight in Nagpur and two each in Nashik, Aurangabad, Raigad, Buldhana and one each from Nanded and Washim,” said state surveillance officer, Dr Pradip Awate.

He said that 61 samples have been referred to the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune to ascertain if they are infected with the new variant. The state has also traced 422 people who have come in contact with the UK returnees and 26 of them have tested positive for Covid-19, he added.

So, the question arises - ‘does India need to be worried? Will the vaccines that are underway work? How do we go about being more cautious and if at all we need to stop its spread, what should we do?’

What is the new strain?

The variant was identified due to Public Health England’s (PHE) proactive and enhanced monitoring following the increase in cases seen in Kent and London. The variant has been named ‘VUI – 202012/01’ (the first Variant Under Investigation in December 2020). It is not uncommon for viruses to undergo mutations; seasonal influenza mutates every year. Variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been observed in other countries, such as Spain as well. This variant includes a mutation in the ‘spike’ protein. According to researchers, this virus has at least 17 changes of mutation. Changes in this part of the spike protein may result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people.

How harmful is it?

While most mutations are either harmful to the virus or have no effect, a few mutations in this new variant looked as if they could potentially affect how the Coronavirus spread. According to reports, the new variant of the SARS-COV-2 could be up to 70% more transmissible than the old variant! What’s more worrying is that this strain is affecting people in the fairly young age group of 30-60yrs. Preliminary data from the UK shows that the virus is spreading quickly in parts of southern England, displacing other variants that have been circulating for months. But there are still several unanswered questions that are multiplying as fast as the new strain of the virus: Does it make people sicker? Does it mean prolonged treatments? Will vaccines that underway work?

Has it arrived in India?

The new strain has so far not been found in India, at least as far as anyone knows. However, the variant has already spread globally. Apart from the UK, the variant has been detected in Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Australia, according to the WHO. “A similar but separate variant has also been identified in South Africa. Now that the world knows to look for the variant, it may turn up in more countries. The Indian government early this week suspended flights from the United Kingdom until the end of the year over fears of the new strain,” said Dr Pandit.

“Separately, several states are also taking steps. Maharashtra has imposed an 11 pm-6 am curfew in major cities until January 5 2021, and mandates 14 days of institutional quarantine for all travellers arriving from Europe and the Middle East without a COVID19 negative report (done within 72hrs of travel),” added Dr Pandit.

Will vaccines work?

Vaccines target multiple parts of the protein itself, we don’t need to be worried about them. We should be doing more of genetic surveillance. I feel people should vaccinate themselves. “While there is a section of people encouraging others to not take the vaccine shots, I urge people to not be overwhelmed by this. The lobby, as it raises doubt about the vaccine, will only make the vaccine developers more GMP compliant and will ensure that we get efficacious vaccines,” Dr Pandit urged.

What precautions should we take?

The best way to curb the infection is to stick to the rules – wash our hands, wear a face mask and maintain social distancing. The recommended control measures to limit the spread of the new variant continue to be tested, following the existing guideline of isolation, and abiding by the restrictions.

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