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Scientists race to study variants in India as cases explode

(Asian News Hub) – A potentially worrisome variant of the coronavirus detected in India may spread more easily. But the country is behind in doing the kind of testing needed to track it and understand it better.

World Health Organization designated the new version of the virus a “variant of concern” based on preliminary research, alongside those that were first detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil but have spread to other countries.

“We need much more information about this virus variant,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19. “We need more sequencing, targeted sequencing to be done and to be shared in India and elsewhere so that we know how much of this virus is circulating.”

Viruses mutate constantly, and the surge in infections here has resulted in more opportunities for new versions to emerge.

But India was slow to start the genetic monitoring needed to see if those changes were happening and if they were making the coronavirus more infectious or deadly.

Such variants also need to be monitored to see if mutations help the virus escape the immune system, potentially leading to reinfections or making vaccines less effective. For now, the WHO stressed that COVID-19 vaccines are effective at preventing disease and death in people infected with the variant.

Indian scientists say their work has been hindered by bureaucratic obstacles and the government’s reluctance to share vital data. India is sequencing around 1% of its total cases, and not all of the results are uploaded to the global database of coronavirus genomes.

When there isn’t enough sequencing, there will be blind spots and more worrisome mutations could go undetected until they’re widespread, said Alina Chan, a postdoctoral researcher at Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard who is tracking global sequencing efforts.

Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said: “It has all the hallmarks of the virus that we should be worried about.”

First detected in the coastal Maharashtra state last year, the new variant has now been found in samples in 19 of the 27 states surveyed. Meanwhile a variant first detected in Britain has declined in India in the past 45 days.

Indian health officials have cautioned that it is too soon to attribute the nation’s surge solely to such variants. Experts point out that the spread was catalyzed by government decisions to not pause religious gatherings and crowded election rallies.

Dr. Gagandeep Kang, who studies microorganisms at Christian Medical College at Vellore in southern India, said researchers need to figure out if the variant is capable of infecting those who previously had COVID-19 and, if so, whether it could result in severe disease.

“I don’t get why people don’t see this as important,” she said.

Sequencing efforts in India have been haphazard. The country uploads 0.49 sequences per 1,000 cases to GISAID, a global data sharing effort, Chan said. The U.S., which had its own troubles with genetic monitoring, uploads about 10 in 1,000, while the U.K. does so for about 82 per 1,000 cases.

Late last year, Indian government institutions were ordered to buy domestic raw materials wherever possible, in keeping with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s goal of turning India “self-reliant.” This proved impossible, since all materials for sequencing were imported, resulting in more paperwork, said Anurag Agarwal, the director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology. The obstacles were most pronounced between September and December, he said, but his lab was able to find workarounds and continued sequencing.

Other labs didn’t, and scientists said that should have been when India ramped up its sequencing, because cases were declining at the time.

Even after a federal effort started in Jan. 18, bringing together 10 labs that can sequence 7,500 samples weekly, the actual work didn’t start until mid-February due to other logistical issues, said Dr. Shahid Jameel, a virologist who chairs the scientific advisory group advising the consortium.

By then, India’s cases had begun spiking.
Jameel said India has sequenced around 20,000 samples, but only 15,000 were publicly reported because some were missing vital data. Until late last month, a third of the samples sent by states were unusable, he said.

And now, the raging virus has infected many of the staff in the labs doing the work.

“Many of our labs are facing this problem,” he said.

AP

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Serosurvey would determine impact of possible 3rd Covid wave on children: DAK

(Asian News Hub) – Doctors Association Kashmir (DAK) on Saturday said serosurvey of pediatric population in the valley would determine the impact of possible third Covid-19 wave on children.

Serosurvey of children will give us a fair estimate of their vulnerability in predicted third wave,” said DAK President and influenza expert Dr Nisar ul Hassan.

“Serosurvey involves testing blood samples of individuals for antibodies that are developed after an infection,” he said.

“This will give us an idea about the percentage of pediatric population who might have developed natural immunity.”

Dr Hassan said recently, a serosurvey of general population including children aged 7 to 17 years has been completed in Kashmir, the results of which are awaited.  The sample size per district in the age group 7 to 11 was 40 and it was 80 in 12-17 age group.

“The survey needs to be extended to the age group of 0 to 6 years and the sample size per district should be 500 to 1000 to get a clearer picture of the actual percentage of children who have developed immunity against Covid-19,” he said.

Dr Hassan said there are speculations that children would be affected more than adults in possible third wave as this is the population group in which there is no vaccine yet.

“However, various serosurveys have dismissed the claim that the next wave will be affecting children exclusively,” he said.

“A pediatric serological study conducted by AIIMS, New Delhi at five different sites found that 55.7 percent children had developed antibodies,” DAK President said.

“The study found that seroprevalence of children and adults in the same regions were almost similar.”

“Another study conducted by PGI Chandigarh revealed that 69 percent of children had antibodies against Covid-19,” he said.

“These children had remained either asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic during the infection.”

“The data of the two surveys prove that children have acquired natural immunity against the virus and it is highly unlikely that the third wave will affect children more than adults,” said Dr Nisar.

“This is a big relief. Because the apprehensions expressed by several health experts about the third wave primarily targeting children had left people worried,” he said.

“But, we can’t derive conclusions on the data from other regions. We need to have our own data based on which decisions can be made ahead of the feared third wave,” he added.

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Israel reports Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness against infection down to 40%

(Asian News Hub) – The Health Ministry said Thursday that the effectiveness of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in preventing infection and mild symptoms has dropped to 40%, according to new data collected over the past month as the delta variant spreads in Israel.

In a televised address, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meanwhile called on Israelis who haven’t been vaccinated to do so as soon as possible.

“The Israeli government is investing billions so that there is a vaccine available in every location in the country, and there are still a million Israelis who simply refuse to be vaccinated,” he said. “The vaccine refusers are endangering their health, their surroundings and all Israeli citizens. If a million Israelis continue to be unvaccinated, this will force the others to shut themselves in at home.”

The effectiveness of the vaccine in preventing hospitalizations and severe symptoms stands at 88% and 91%, respectively, the ministry said.

With inputs from Haaretz

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Scientists discover more than 30 viruses frozen in ice, most never seen before

(Asian News Hub) – A group of scientists discovered ancient viruses frozen in two ice samples taken from the Tibetan Plateau in China, and most of them are unlike anything ever seen before.

The findings, published Wednesday in the journal Microbiome, came from ice cores taken in 2015 that scientists said began to freeze at least 14,400 years ago.

“These glaciers were formed gradually, and along with dust and gases, many, many viruses were also deposited in that ice,” Zhi-Ping Zhong, lead author and researcher at the Ohio State University Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, said in a statement. “The glaciers in western China are not well-studied, and our goal is to use this information to reflect past environments. And viruses are a part of those environments.”

When researchers analyzed the ice, they found genetic codes for 33 viruses. Of the 33, genetic codes for four of them showed they are part of virus families that typically infect bacteria. Up to 28 were novel, meaning they had never before been identified.

The group said it doesn’t believe the viruses originated from animals or humans but came from the soil or plants. The scientists said roughly half of them survived because of the ice.

“These are viruses that would have thrived in extreme environments,” said Matthew Sullivan, co-author of the study and director of Ohio State’s Center of Microbiome Science.

“These viruses have signatures of genes that help them infect cells in cold environments – just surreal genetic signatures for how a virus is able to survive in extreme conditions.”

Sullivan said the technology used to study microbes and viruses inside the ice would lead to looking for similar genetic sequences in other extreme ice environments, possibly on Mars.

Senior author of the study Lonnie Thompson said the discovery of the viruses in glaciers of ice will help researchers understand how they respond to climate change.

“We know very little about viruses and microbes in these extreme environments and what is actually there,” Thompson said. 

“The documentation and understanding of that is extremely important.”

AGENCY

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