(Asian News Hub) – Two variants of SARS-CoV-2 — N440K and E484K — have been detected in Maharashtra and Kerala but there is no reason to believe presently on the that they are responsible for the surge in cases in some districts in these two states, the Centre said on Tuesday.
One of the two variants has also been detected in Telangana.
Addressing a press conference here, NITI Aayog Member (Health) V K Paul said that 187 people have tested positive for the UK strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the country so far, while six people have detected with the South Africa variant. Also, one person has tested positive for the Brazil variant strain.
“Both the N440K and E484K variants of SARS-CoV-2 have been detected in Maharashtra. In Kerala and Telangana also these variants have been found. Also, three other mutated strains — one each from UK, South Africa and Brazil are already present in the country. But there is no reason for us to believe, on the basis of scientific information, that they are responsible for the upsurge of the outbreak in some districts of Maharashtra and Kerala,” Paul said.
Reporting only detection does not lead to any attribution for a phenomenon on the ground because to relate the occurrence of a virus mutation to change in disease pattern, other epidemiological information and clinical information has to be linked to these mutants, Paul said, adding, “because otherwise these (mutations) happen but they have no influence on the pandemic.”
He said the behaviour of mutations is being constantly and closely watched in the country and 3,500 strains have been sequenced so far.
“When we are doing sequencing, we are looking for any abnormal shift in the virus character. We have been watching the mutants.
“Today, based on the information and as analyzed and understood by a very eminent scientific advisory group of Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG), we would like to underline the fact that we do not see attribution of mutant strains to the upsurge of the infection being seen in some districts. But this is work in progress. We will continue to watch the situation with full responsibility,” Paul said.
The SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) was established in December end for laboratory and epidemiological surveillance of circulating strains of SARS-CoV-2 in the country.
Stating that a large proportion of the population is still vulnerable, Paul stressed that COVID appropriate behaviour like wearing masks, maintaining social distancing, hand washing and not getting into mass gatherings should be followed.
Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said that a total of 1,17,54,788 COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered in the country till Tuesday 1 pm, with 1,04,93,205 getting the first dose and 12,61,583 being given the second dose.
Bhushan said that 12 states and union territories, including Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Odisha, have administered first dose of COVID-19 vaccine to more than 75 per cent of the registered healthcare workers, while 11 states and UTs, including Karnataka, Telangana, Delhi, Punjab and Chandigarh, have administered the first dose to less than 60 per cent of healthcare workers.
Two states, Kerala and Maharashtra, account for 75 per cent of total active COVID-19 cases in country, and six people have been detected with South Africa strain of SARS-CoV-2 in India so far.
What is Omicron and what makes it a variant of concern (VoC)?
(Asian News Hub) – It is a new variant of SARS-CoV-2 that has recently been reported from South Africa on 24th November 2021 called as B.1.1.529 or Omicron (based on Greek alphabets like alpha, beta, delta etc). This variant has shown a very large number of mutations, especially more than 30 on the viral spike protein, which is the key target of the immune response.
Given the collection of mutations in Omicron, which earlier individually have been associated with increased infectivity and/or immune evasion, and the sudden rise in number of positive cases in South Africa, World Health Organization has declared Omicron as a Variant of Concern (VoC).
Can the currently used diagnostics methods, detect Omicron?
The most accepted and commonly used method of diagnostic for SARS-CoV- 2 Variant is RT-PCR method. This method detects specific genes in the virus, such as Spike (S), Enveloped (E) and Nucleocapsid (N) etc to confirm the presence of virus. However, in case of Omicron, as the S gene is heavily mutated, some of the primers may lead to results indicating absence of the S gene (called as S gene drop out). This particular S gene drop out along with the detection of other viral genes could be used a diagnostic feature of Omicron. However, for final confirmation of the omicron variant genomic sequencing is required.
How concerned should we be about the new VoC?
WHO declares a variant as a VoC after assessment when there is increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology; OR increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; OR decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics. (Source: WHO)
It is important to highlight that Omicron has been declared VoC based on the observed mutations, their predicted features of increased transmission and immune evasion, and preliminary evidence of detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, such as increased reinfections. The definitive evidence for increased remission and immune evasion is awaited.
What precautions should we take?
The precautions and steps to be taken remain same as before. It is essential to mask yourself properly, take both doses of vaccines (if not yet vaccinated), maintain social distancing and maintain good ventilation to the maximum possible.
Will there be a third wave?
Omicron cases are increasingly being reported from countries outside of South Africa and given its characteristics, it is likely to spread to more countries including India. However, the scale and magnitude of rise in cases and most importantly the severity of disease that will be caused is still not clear. Further, given the fast pace of vaccination in India and high exposure to delta variant as evidenced by high seropositivity, the severity of the disease is anticipated to be low. However, scientific evidence is still evolving.
Will the existing vaccines work against Omicron?
While, there is no evidence to suggest that existing vaccines do not work on Omicron, some of the mutations reported on Spike gene may decrease the efficacy of existing vaccines. However, vaccine protection is also by antibodies as well as by cellular immunity, which is expected to be relatively better preserved. Hence vaccines are expected to still offer protection against severe disease and, vaccination with the available vaccines is crucial. If eligible, but not vaccinated, one should get vaccinated.
Why do variants occur?
Variants are normal part of evolution and as long as the virus is able to infect, replicate and transmit, they will continue to evolve. Further, not all variants are dangerous and most often than not, we don’t notice them. Only when they are more infectious, or can reinfect people etc they gain prominence. The most important step to avoid generation of variants is to reduce the number of infections.
Moderna chief predicts existing COVID-19 vaccines will struggle with Omicron variant
(Asian News Hub) – The chief executive of Moderna has just predicted that existing COVID-19 vaccines will be much less effective at tackling Omicron than earlier variants of SARS-CoV-2 and warned it would take months before pharmaceutical companies can manufacture new variant-specific jabs at scale, FR reported.
Stéphane Bancel said the high number of Omicron mutations on the spike protein, which the virus uses to infect human cells, and the suspected potential rapid spread of the variant in South Africa, suggested the current crop of COVID-19 vaccines may need to be modified next year to beat Omicron.
“There is no world, I think, where [the effectiveness] is the same level, we had with Delta,” Bancel said.
He added: “I think it’s going to be a material drop. I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to . . . are like ‘this is not going to be good’.”
Omicron has 30+ mutations in spike protein region, may bypass vaccines: Dr Guelria AIIMS chief
Says efficacy of vaccines, including those in use in India, needs to be evaluated ‘critically’
(Asian News Hub) – The new Omicron variant of coronavirus has reportedly got over 30 mutations in the spike protein region giving it the potential to develop a immunoescape mechanism, and thus the efficacy of vaccines against it needs to be evaluated critically, PTI reported as saying by AIIMS chief Dr Randeep Guelria.
The presence of spike protein facilitates a virus’ entry into the host cell and is responsible for making it transmissible and causing infection.
“The new variant of coronavirus reportedly has got more than 30 mutations in the spike protein region and therefore has the potential of developing immunoescape mechanisms. As most vaccines (work by) forming antibodies against the spike protein, so many mutations at the spike protein region may lead to a decreased efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines,” AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guelria told PTI.
In such a scenario, the efficacy of vaccines, including those in use in India, needs to be evaluated “critically”, he said.
The future course of action will depend on what more data on its transmissibility, virulence and immunoescpae shows, he said.
The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia INSACOG is closely tracking the new variant of COVID-19 called B.1.1.529 and its presence has not been detected yet in the country, officials have said.
Dr Guleria emphasised the need to be very vigilant and having aggressive surveillance both for international travellers and in the region where there is a sudden increase in the number of cases.
“Also, we must ask everyone to religiously follow Coivd-appropriate behaviour and not let their guards down. Also, it has to be ensured that people get both the doses of vaccine and those who have not yet taken the jab are encouraged to come forward to take it,” he said.
The new, and potentially more contagious variant, was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from South Africa on November 24. It has since been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel among other countries.
On Friday, it was designated a ‘Variant of Concern’ by the WHO, which named it Omicron. A ‘Variant of Concern’ is the WHO’s top category of worrying Covid-19 strain.
The Centre on Thursday asked all states and union territories to conduct rigorous screening and testing of all international travellers coming from or transiting through South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
In a letter to the additional chief secretary/principal secretary/secretary (Health) of all states and union territories, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan asked them to ensure that samples of travellers turning positive are sent to the designated genome sequencing laboratories promptly.
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