With COVID-19 cases rising exponentially in Maharashtra, officials have been left scrambling to chart a course of action for the coming weeks. While some areas such as Amravati have imposed a seven-day lockdown, others have put night curfew and other restrictions in place.
Much like the onset of the pandemic, the case tally is rising on a daily basis and reports suggest that there may now be new strains of the deadly virus to contend with. The Maharashtra government has denied reports of a new strain active in the state. According to the State Health Department, there have been no new variants of COVID-19 detected in Amravati, Yavatmal and Satara districts. Nonetheless, there is a fair amount of confusion that persists.
The clarification came after several reports suggested otherwise and researchers indicated that they might have discovered two new coronavirus strains in the state. As per the health department, "no mutation similar to those found in new strains in the UK, South Africa or Brazil was observed".
Reports from some samples are yet to come back.
Now, the lack of mutations similar to the foreign strains does not mean that there has been no mutations whatsoever. According to officials, there now seems to be a change in the composition of the virus. According to Rajesh Karyekarte, head of the department of microbiology at the state-run B J Medical College, the recently-found new mutations were characterised by the virus’s ability to escape neutralising antibodies in the host body.
An earlier FPJ report quoted a senior health official to explain that genome sequencing had revealed different mutations in the samples from Amravati, Yavatmal and Satara. With many samples having been sent to NIV Pune for genome sequencing, the official stance may be updated once additional data is available.
Will the new strain create additional problems?
With COVID-19 cases rising steadily in Maharashtra, the possibility of new strains has sparked alarm. And indeed, there is some cause for concern. State government’s technical adviser, Dr Subhash Salunkhe says that a mutation found in Amravati also seems to be more infectious. As per a recent report that quotes him, the virus appears to be "more transmissible" in Amravati and Akola. He also said that it appeared to be somewhat more fatal, with pneumonia setting in early.
According to AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria, the new variant could prove more dangerous. It can even cause re-infections in people who have developed anti-bodies to the virus, he told NDTV.
How does a mutation occur? And what is happening in Maharashtra?
According to a PTI report, several mutations including N440K and E484K have now been found in Maharashtra. These are not new to India, having surfaced in other parts of the country over the last few months. In a sample from Satara however, a new mutation named V911I was found but the researchers could not find significant scientific references about this mutation in published journals. All these strains are of A2 type of coronavirus, which is common in India. The two new mutations found in Maharashtra can escape neutralizing antibodies.
But how does a mutation occur in the first place?
According to the US' National Center for Biotechnology Information, mutation occurs when an error is incorporated in the viral genome. Recombination occurs when coinfecting viruses exchange genetic information, creating a novel virus.
"Mutations arise by one of three mechanisms: (1) by the effects of physical mutagens (UV light, x-rays) on nucleic acids; (2) by the natural behavior of the bases that make up nucleic acids (resonance from keto to enol and from amino to imino forms), and (3) through the fallibility of the enzymes that replicate the nucleic acids," a document on the NCBI website adds.