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The Centre has alerted governments of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala about the emerging spread of a new variant of concern ‘delta plus’ and advised them to take up immediate containment measures in the districts and clusters where patients infected by the mutant strain are being seen.

Genome sequencing of samples from covid-19 positive patients has shown that the variant is currently present in Ratnagiri and Jalgaon districts of Maharashtra, Palakkad and Pathanamthitta districts of Kerala, and Bhopal and Shivpuri districts of Madhya Pradesh, the Union health ministry said in a statement.

The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), a network of 28 laboratories tasked with carrying of genetic surveillance of the novel coronavirus in India, has found that the new virus has increased transmissibility, stronger binding to receptors of lung cells and leads to potential reduction in response to monoclonal antibodies that can fight the disease.

The ‘delta plus’ variant traces its lineage to the delta (B.1.617.2) variant which was first observed in India. The new variant was formed after a K417N mutation on the spike protein gene, which allows the virus to escape the immune system of a person more efficiently. The K417N mutation was also seen in the beta variant (B.1.351), first seen in South Africa, which has proven to be particularly effective in evading immune response.

Health secretary Rajesh Bhushan earlier on Tuesday tried to play down concern over the ‘delta plus’ variant by saying that it was a ‘variant of interest’, a less concerning classification of mutant strains, and that while it were found in nine other countries—US, UK, Portugal, Switzerland, Japan, Poland, Nepal, China and Russia.

In India, 22 cases have been found so far, with 16 cases alone found in Ratnagiri and Jalgaon.

It was not clarified why infections with the new delta plus variant had not been detected in major metropolitan cities, which have access to other countries.

The first case of delta variant was detected in Europe in March but was brought to public notice earlier this month, with World Health Organization officials saying that they are looking into it.

The detection of a mutated delta variant comes amid a decline in covid-19 cases in India, with only around 42,000 new cases being seen on Monday as against over 400,000 confirmed cases being recorded at the peak of the second wave last month. With lockdowns being lifted in various states, and a new, potentially more transmissible variant looming, there is concern that India may see another surge in cases.

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