The Covid-19 variant spreading in India, which is facing an explosive outbreak, appears to be more contagious and has been classified as being “of concern”, the World Health Organization said Monday.
The UN health agency said the B.1.617 variant of Covid-19 first found in India last October seemed to be transmitting more easily than the original version of the virus, and might possibly have some increased resistance to vaccine protections.
“There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility of the B.1.617,” Maria Van Kerkove, the WHO’s lead on Covid-19, told reporters, also pointing to early studies “suggesting that there is some reduced neutralisation”.
“As such we are classifying this as a variant of concern at the global level,” she said, adding that more details would be provided in the WHO’s weekly epidemiological update on Tuesday.
The findings come at a time when India, suffering from one of the worst resurgences in the world, reported nearly 3,70,000 fresh infections and more than 3,700 new deaths on Monday.
The devastating wave has also overwhelmed the domestic healthcare system, and experts have said official figures for cases and fatalities are much lower than the actual numbers.
It has for some time been feared that B.1.617 — which counts several sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics — might be contributing to the alarming spread.
But until now, WHO has listed it merely as a “variant of interest”.
Now it will be added to the list containing three other variants of Covid-19 — those first detected in Britain, Brazil and South Africa — which the WHO has classified as being “of concern”.
They are seen as more dangerous than the original version of the virus by being more transmissible, deadly or able to get past vaccine protections.
When it comes to the B.1.617 variant, Van Kerkove stressed that for the time being “we don’t have anything to suggest that our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines don’t work”.
The WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan agreed.
Earlier, in an exclusive interview with CNBC-TV18’s Sheeren Bhan, Swaminathan said that the double mutation strain consists of variants found in Brazil and South Africa and it evades the body’s immune response.
“The surge in India increases chances of more dangerous variants emerging. Prelim data shows that the Indian variant is more contagious. There is heterogeneity in India in terms of the spread of Covid-19. WHO is concerned about the number of cases and deaths in India. Globally, cases and deaths have plateaued, not in South Asia,” she said.
Stressing on the need and the urgency for people to get vaccinated, she explained, “There is not enough data to show that the double mutant is vaccine-resistant. All the available vaccines today in India and elsewhere prevent severe disease and death even if you get the infection. You are not going to end up in the ICU critically ill. The message is to take the vaccine whichever is available and you eligible for it. If your turn is there, please take it.”
This can also be seen as a clarification by Swaminathan who had earlier, in an interview with AFP, said that the Indian variant may be “dodging vaccine protections”, contributing to the country’s explosive outbreak.