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COVID-19 | Second or third generation versions of Indian variant may be more dangerous, says expert

The new observations which Prof Haseltine pointed out have more chances to be correct as the new variants of COVID-19 may be currently racing through India’s tightly-packed population of 1.4 billion people.

May 07, 2021 / 07:31 AM IST
Patients suffering from the COVID-19 receive treatment inside the emergency ward at Holy Family hospital in New Delhi. (Image: Reuters)

Patients suffering from the COVID-19 receive treatment inside the emergency ward at Holy Family hospital in New Delhi. (Image: Reuters)

The second or third generation versions of the COVID-19 variant known as B.1.617 may already be circulating in India and may be more dangerous, says former Harvard Medical School professor William Haseltine.

"India has the necessary genome sequencing capabilities but it needs to have a mass surveillance program. I’ll be on the lookout for more and newer variants, given the opportunity the virus has had with such a massive outbreak," Bloomberg quoted Haseltine as saying who now chairs think tank Access Health International.

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The new observations which Prof Haseltine pointed out have more chances to be correct as the new variants of COVID-19 may be currently racing through India’s tightly-packed population of 1.4 billion people.

India on May 6 registered a record 412,262 new infections and 3,980 deaths. The country is under the grip of COVID-19 and have been adding over 300,000 cases for 15 straight days which has pushed its tally beyond 21 million.

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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With fears gripping the global arena over the new Indian variant of COVID-19, i.e. B.1.617, countries like Singapore, UK and Tanzania have curbed travel to and from India. Also, Australia has banned its citizens from returning from India and even imposed a fine of $50,000 and five years imprisonment for violators, reported the business daily.

Because of the presence of two changes in the virus’s genome, called E484Q and L452R, the India strain has been called a double mutant. As per research, these genome affect a portion of the spike protein which is the key to the virus entering cells.

Some of the researchers even estimate that Indian variant (B.1.617) is as transmissible as the UK variant (B.1.1.7) and may be 70 percent more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus.

However, initial analysis indicate that Indian variant (B.1.617) does not pose a big threat and doesn’t appear to be more dangerous. It has been now classified a variant of interest by the World Health Organization.

Hyderabad-bad based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology's Rakesh Mishra had said that Bharat Biotech's Covaxin and AstraZeneca Plc’s vaccine, called Covishield in India are effective against the strain.

Last week, BioNTech SE Chief Executive Officer Ugur Sahin opined that mRNA shot it’s making with partner Pfizer Inc. would work against the India mutant. "The Indian variant has the same mutation that we’ve already investigated and against which our vaccine was also effective," Sahin said.

Meanwhile, researchers are busy evaluating the data and findings of genomic surveillance which may help in providing crucial information on the new forms of this shape-shifting virus. This can even help in preventing subsequent waves and develop the next generation of vaccines.

WHO's technical lead officer Maria Van Kerkhove recently said that information about new variants is coming in 'fast and furious' as they are monitoring variants through a global working group of laboratories.

Looking at the current situation in India, the genomic sequencing which can identify new strains and track their progress is relatively sparse as only about 11,000 viruses have been analysed.
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