Experts believe that the B.1.617 variant is behind the huge wave of infections seen in India in recent weeks. The country now accounts for 50% of Covid-19 cases and 30% of deaths from the virus worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
WHO designated B.1.617 and its sub-lines as a “variant of concern” on May 10. This classification means that a variant may be more transmissible or cause more serious disease, not respond to treatment, escape the immune response, or go undiagnosed by standard tests.
B.1.617 was the fourth strain to be declared “variant of concern” by the WHO; the others are B.1.1.7, which was first seen in the UK; B.1.351, first detected in South Africa; and P.1, first found in Brazil.
Here’s what you need to know.
Is it more contagious?
WHO said B.1.617 was showing signs that it was potentially more transmissible than some other strains of the virus, but warned that more research was needed. Although Indian officials say the variant is behind the country’s second crippling wave, the WHO has said several other contributing factors – such as mass gatherings – likely also contributed to the spread in that country. .
The UK, which has world-class virus sequencing capabilities, warned that B.1.617.2 – a subtype of the variant first discovered in India – would likely overtake others, such as B .1.1.7 highly transmissible first found. in the UK last year, to become the most dominant variant of the virus in the country.
“What has changed is the very clear vision now that everyone has looked at it, that [B.1.617.2] is more transmissible than B.1.1.7 and we expect that over time this variant will overtake and come to dominate in the UK, in the same way that B.1.1.7 has taken over and even other variants have taken over before that, ”England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said on Friday.
Is it more deadly?
At present, there is no evidence that B.1.617 causes more severe disease.
“There is currently insufficient evidence to indicate that any of the variants recently detected in India causes more serious illness,” Public Health England said on May 7.
Do vaccines work against this?
Laboratory research into the effectiveness of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines against variants first seen in India has shown that injections appear to protect against variants. The results were reported on Sunday in a preprinted article on biorxiv.org, which has yet to be peer reviewed.
The new research involved serum samples taken from eight people who had recovered from Covid-19, six people fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine and three people fully vaccinated with Moderna. The researchers analyzed in a lab experiment how serum samples neutralized lentiviruses – a type of retrovirus – with the same mutations as the coronavirus variants B.1.617 and B.1.618.
They found some decreases in neutralization, but overall the antibodies of people who had been vaccinated appeared to work “well above” the serum of people who had recovered from Covid-19 caused by earlier versions of the vaccine. coronavirus.
More research is needed to determine how effective vaccines are against these variants in the real world, they said.
Their results appear to confirm what researchers at the University of Oxford are seeing in the first real data, which gives “some degree of confidence” that the vaccines work against the variants, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday. at Sky News.
He echoed other scientists who have been cautiously optimistic about the effectiveness of vaccines. Sir John Bell, professor emeritus of medicine at Oxford, told Times Radio that early lab results suggest that the B.1.617.2 variant “will be susceptible to the vaccine like any other.” “
While the variant is now the dominant strain in parts of the UK, Hancock said that “people who end up in hospital are largely vaccine-eligible people who haven’t taken the vaccine. . “
England’s chief medical officer, Whitty, said on May 6 that the variants first identified in India were likely in the middle in terms of danger between B.1.1.7, which appears to be almost entirely vaccine-sensitive and treatments, and B.1.351, which has been documented to infect people who have recovered from infection with previous variants of the coronavirus, and also to partially evade the protection offered by vaccines.
Which countries have detected the variant?
The variant has been identified in 44 countries, on all continents except Antarctica, according to the WHO.
The UK has reported the highest number of cases of the strain outside of India, he said.
Meanwhile, in the United States – where B.1.617 is also present – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still classifies it as a “variant of interest”, but noted that this classification could change, on the scientific database. proof.
What does this mean for global non-lockdown roadmaps?
If the coronavirus outbreak in India cannot be contained and continues to spread to neighboring countries with low vaccine supplies and weak health systems, experts warn the world is at risk of replicating the scenes seen in India.
The epidemic has already had an impact on the global vaccine supply. India is one of the major manufacturers of vaccines, but when cases started to increase, its government restricted the export of Covid-19 vaccines.
And the more the virus spreads, the more likely it is to mutate and create new variants that could possibly resist current vaccines, threatening to undermine the progress of other countries in containing the pandemic.
CNN’s Maggie Fox, Kara Fox, Ivana Kottasová, Robert Iddiols and Aditi Sangal contributed to this report.