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A new double mutant strain of SARS CoV2 virus has been detected in India, union health ministry said on Wednesday. This is in addition to other UK, South African and Brazilian variants of the virus already circulating in 18 states of the country.

The new virus strain having two mutations, government indicated, is highly infectious and has a potential to skip the immunity developed either by natural infection or vaccines. The development emerges as a cause of serious worry for government, as a second wave of the covid-19 pandemic is looming large in the country which has already vaccinated over 50 million people against the disease.

“The analysis of samples from Maharashtra has revealed that compared to December 2020, there has been an increase in the fraction of samples with the E484Q and L452R mutations. Such mutations confer immune escape and increased infectivity," union health ministry said in a statement.

“These mutations have been found in about 15-20% of samples and do not match any previously catalogued variants of concern (VOCs) (UK Strain, South Africa Variant and Brazil variant found in India). These have been categorized as VOCs but require the same epidemiological and public health response of “increased testing, comprehensive tracking of close contacts, prompt isolation of positive cases and contacts as well as treatment as per National Treatment Protocol" by the States/UTs," it said.

The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) a group of 10 National Laboratories established by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in December 2020 has been carrying out genomic sequencing and analysis of circulating covid-19 viruses, and correlating epidemiological trends with genomic variants.

“A total of 771 variants have been found from more than 10,000 samples being subject to genome sequencing. The variants have been found in 18 States/UTs including 62 variants in Maharashtra. A total of 736 UK Strains, 34 South Africa Strain and 1 Brazil variant have been traced so far in the country," Sujeet Kumar Singh, Director, National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC).

INSACOG also sequenced 2032 samples from all 14 districts from Kerala. According to the government, the N440K variant that is associated with immune escape has been found in 123 samples from 11 districts. This variant was earlier found in 33% of samples from Andhra Pradesh, and in 53 of 104 samples from Telangana. This variant has also been reported from 16 other countries including UK, Denmark, Singapore, Japan and Australia. As of now these can be at best said to be variant under investigation," the union health ministry said.

As mutant SARS CoV2 viruses are circulating fast in the country, over 47,262 new covid-19 cases were registered in the last 24 hours. Six states cumulatively account for 81.65% of these cases. Maharashtra has reported the highest daily new cases at 28,699. It is followed by Punjab with 2,254 while Karnataka reported 2,010 new cases. The government has raised alarm bells over recent surge cases in a few states including Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh among others. The government has said that though mutants and a new double mutant variant have been found in India, these have not been detected in numbers sufficient to either establish or direct relationship or explain the rapid increase in cases in some States.

“So far there is no established linkage between the recent surges in cases and mutation. “There are many reasons for the surge - wherever the pool of susceptible population is bigger and when they lower the guard by not following COVID appropriate behaviours they are prone to infection. It may also be noticed that the current SARS-COV-2 variants detected in the community have been prevalent since 6-8 months," said Kumar adding that genomic variants of various viruses are a natural phenomenon and are found in almost all countries.

Public health experts have raised concern that more than mutations, the bigger worry is that whether the available vaccines would work would on these strains or not.

“Whether the vaccines will work on these mutant strains or decrease hospital admissions and mortality only time will tell. The only explanation to this is that if the virus has not changed its strategy for transmission, we should also stick to the strategy for prevention," said Dr Samiran Panda, head, epidemiology and communicable diseases, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

“The genome sequencing indicates that the new mutant strain may hamper the ability of vaccines in giving immunity and they might not fight this virus and prevent severe form of the disease," said Panda asserting that currently India has vaccines such as Covaxin which are effective enough to provide immunity against the mutant variants such as UK and Brazilian variants.

Public health experts have said that mutation is only happening because the virus is proliferating and transmitting due to lack of adoption of the COVID appropriate behaviours.

“Suppress the chains of transmission. The more we suppress the less it will replicate in the country. If we protect ourselves from getting infected then there will be no mutations too. This is the ultimate way to bring the infections to zero," said Dr V K Paul, Member (Health), NITI Aayog. “Country’s 75% of the total population is susceptible population and it is a bigger risk factor and hence everyone should strictly follow COVID appropriate behavior, he said.

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