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Just as the first crop of vaccines started giving a glimmer of hope to people reeling from the covid-19 pandemic, the UK government’s announcement of a mutation in the novel coronavirus on Sunday set alarm bells ringing across the world. Travel bans for air passengers from the country were announced, financial markets tumbled and there was anxiety over whether the vaccines would be effective against it or not. The World Health Organization (WHO) and governments world over rushed to explain that there is a need to be vigilant but not panic. Mint delves into the details of this mutant variant and its effect on the world.

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Is there a more virulent strain?

Over the last few weeks, there was a rapid rise in covid cases in southeast England, leading to epidemiological and virological investigations. Analysis of the genetic material of the virus in a large proportion of the people in this region showed multiple mutations in the spike protein, through which the virus attaches itself to human cells, as well as those in other genomic regions. The spike protein mutations allow the virus to attach more easily with the human cells, and increases its transmission between humans by up to 70%.

Why is this mutation a concern?

Mutations in a virus, as in any other living organisms, is a common factor responsible for evolution. However, mutations in the spike protein of the coronavirus is a major concern as it allows the virus to transmit more and, more importantly, could have a potential impact on the effectiveness of medicines and vaccines as many of them target the spike protein specifically. However, WHO experts have said there is “no evidence" the variant is more likely to cause severe disease or mortality as of now. Instead, as Mike Dean, WHO’s executive director for the health emergencies programme, said, this is probably the first pandemic when mutations of a virus are being looked at so closely and emphasized that while experts are learning a lot, there is no need to panic.

What measures have the government taken to protect against the new strain?

The Indian government on Monday banned all flights to and from UK from Wednesday to 31 December. It also issued a new standard operating procedure, wherein the government will conduct genome sequencing of all covid-19 positive passengers arriving from the UK between Monday and Wednesday to determine whether they have been infected by the new strain of the virus found there. It has also asked states and the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme to step up monitoring of travellers from, and those who transited through, the UK and arrived in India from 25 November to 8 December. The government has also directed that all contacts of infected travellers who arrived at airports in India between Monday and Wednesday be subjected to institutional quarantine. Genome sequencing will be done on the virus found in all the positive patients in this case. If it is found to be of the new variant, the patients would be isolated.

Will it make vaccines and current treatments redundant?

Experts in the UK and WHO, as well as NITI Aayog member (health) V.K. Paul and other Indian experts, have said it is unlikely to have an impact on the effectiveness of the medicines and vaccines, though research on it is ongoing. WHO said laboratory studies are ongoing to determine if the variants of the viruses have different biological properties or can alter vaccine efficacy. Such information on the virus variant and its effect on diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines will be given regularly.

How do vaccine makers plan to adapt?

Moderna and Pfizer, makers of two authorised mRNA vaccine, have rushed to test their vaccines against the new variant. Pfizer’s partner BioNTech has said a vaccine against the mutation can be made in six weeks. In India vaccine makers have been silent on the mutation, but Zydus Cadila earlier said that if there is a mutation in the virus, its DNA vaccine can be changed and modified and the vaccine can be produced in three months.

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