Great Britain

What do we know about the Indian coronavirus variant?

India has been put on the UK’s red list for travel as it battles a devastating rise in infections and a new variant of coronavirus that has spread to other countries including the UK. What do we know about the new variant?

How was the variant discovered?

Scientists in India drew attention to the new variant as it gained ground in the western state of Maharashtra between December 2020 and March this year. On 24 March, the Indian health ministry reported that 15%-20% of coronavirus sequenced in the region – an early hotspot of the country’s second wave – carried two unusual mutations: E484Q and L425R. The figure has reportedly risen to more than 60% in the region since then. The variant has been named B.1.617.

When did it arrive in the UK?

Genomic surveillance in the UK found the Indian variant among samples dating back to February. Public Health England (PHE) said last week that it was aware of 73 cases in England and four in Scotland. Most are linked to travel from India, but some cases have come about through transmission of the virus in people’s homes.

How dangerous is the variant?

It is hard to tell. Last week, PHE declared it a “variant under investigation”, a label given to potentially worrisome new variants that are not well understood. Scientists are now working to confirm whether or not the variant is more dangerous than others in circulation, for example by spreading more quickly, causing more severe disease or evading immunity built up from previous infection or vaccination. If lab studies, epidemiological analyses and other work confirms it to be more problematic, it will be upgraded to a “variant of concern”.

The change in designation could happen very soon. Of the two key mutations in the Indian variant, L452R may help the virus evade some antibodies from vaccination, while E484Q has similarities to the E484K mutation which helps make the South African variant at least partially resistant to vaccines. That said, the mutations in the Indian variant are highly unlikely to render vaccines completely ineffective, because the shots induce such broad immune defences.

It is unclear whether the new variant is driving the surge in cases in India, but some scientists were keen to see India put on the travel red list in the hope of keeping imported cases at bay. Genomic sequencing in the UK shows that the Indian variant rose from 0.2% to 1% of cases in two weeks from 20 March, but the majority of these are believed to be imports.

Are scientists worried?

Some are. Danny Altmann, a professor of immunology at Imperial College London, said that from everything he had seen on the Indian variant, it was likely to be upgraded to a “variant of concern” soon.

But Jeffrey Barrett, leader of the Covid-19 genomics initiative at the Sanger Institute, said the Indian variant may not be as problematic as other variants of concern, such as those first seen in South Africa and Brazil. The variant existed at low levels for months in India, and has cropped up in other places, without taking off rapidly, suggesting that it may not be as transmissible as the Kent variant that is now dominant in the UK, he said.

Andrew Hayward, of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that while evidence for greater transmissibility and escape from immunity was “circumstantial” for the Indian variant, he thought it was the right idea to “err on the side of caution” and impose travel restrictions.

The concern is bolstered by the most recent data from Health Canada, which shows that passengers infected with coronavirus were found on all 27 flights arriving in Canada from Delhi between 4 and 14 April.

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