‘New Scientist’, a credible science and technology magazine says, quoting ‘Nextstrain’, a pathogen tracking project, that UK coronavirus variant or B.1.1.7 is responsible for COVID-19 surge in Asia, causing 40% of the cases. The South African variant or B.1.351 lineage of coronavirus is next in the line, responsible for 16% of the cases.
Yet India, which is now registering the most single cases daily, maintains that there is no evidence to suggest so, even if it has a homegrown coronavirus mutant that is a cause of concern now.
On March 24, the Union Government confirmed that the coronavirus double mutant or B.1.617 lineage was present largely in Maharashtra and in small numbers in six other states. But as per the latest health ministry observation, the mutant infection has spread to three more states. So the mutant is present in many states hit hard by the second wave, including Maharashtra, Delhi, West Bengal, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and every state is witnessing a rising trend.
The ‘New Scientist’ report questions the functioning of India’s initiative ‘the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG)’ established in December 2020 to find out different genomic sequences that could be more infectious and deadlier than the original coronavirus strain last year. It also raises possibilities like if the new mutant strains are behind rapid surge in COVID wave in different states.
Take Maharashtra for example.
Between January and March this year, Maharashtra saw an increase of 15-20% in coronavirus double mutant count. On April 10, the National Institute of Virology shared a report of a limited genome sequencing analysis of positive samples which said the double mutant coronavirus was responsible behind 61% cases in Maharashtra. As many as 220 of 361 samples turned positive for double mutant coronavirus. Mumbai has not yet reported this strain but it could be the next big factor in the second wave of coronavirus if we analyze the samples on a larger scale.
The B.1.617 lineage evolved when two mutated strains, E484Q and L452R, came together to form a third strain. The E484Q strain is from India and L452R is a Californian strain. It is a homegrown strain now found in many other countries, including the US and UK. The fact that the Indian strain is now being found in many other countries only indicates that the double mutant is spreading.
What may be the glaring mistake here is the fact that India has not yet tested coronavirus samples on a large scale even if its mutant viruses are now behind the rapid scale of surge in many countries.
In 128 days, India has been able to genome only sequence around 14,000 test samples for coronavirus variants even if the UK variant is now the major COVID strain behind 40% cases in Asia. As per the Newstrain analysis or in many countries, including UK where it causes 98% of the new cases or the in the US with 25-30% new cases due to UK variant or the South African variant which is resistant to many vaccines or the Brazilian variant which can re-infect people.
India, on an average, is testing just 109 positive samples a day to analyse the coronavirus genome sequences to find out other deadly mutants of the virus when the fact is that the genome sequencing is the best way to find which variant of virus is circulating more.
The Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID) is a data sharing platform for genome sequences on influenza and COVID-19 viruses and India and many other countries provide genome sequencing data to this free-access website. As per GISAID database, UK has, so far provided 3.67 lakh genomes, followed by the U.S with 2.83 lakh genomes, Germany with over 54000 genomes and Denmark with over 50,000 genomes but India, the second hardest-hit nation is a laggard here. So far, the country has provided just 7842 genome sequences.
Yes, we can’t say if the coronavirus mutants are largely behind the recent surge, but at the same time, we also cannot deny the fact B.1.617 has emerged as the leading cause behind COVID surge in Maharashtra in the studies done so far.
What is important here is the fact that we have not yet tested its genomic sequencing on a large scale to know its spread even if we identified this coronavirus variant on December 7 last year. The mutant is already around four-months-old as per its date of detection. Similarly, the UK variant has been found in 80% of the test samples from Punjab that were taken for genome sequencing and it has spread to around 19 states in the country.
It can be argued that very small number of positive test samples have been genome sequenced and the results cannot be reflected for a larger population base but the only way out of this is to do more tests. Because not doing so can be a fatal mistake if we find later that the mutant virus is vaccine resistant as has happened with the South African variant which is resistant to Covishield, India’s main COVID vaccine.