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The World Health Organization has just reclassified the strain B.1.617, which was first identified in India, as a ‘variant of concern’ – indicating that the variant has the ‘most important health implications public ”.
India is the second worst affected country in the world, reporting more than 22.66 million infections and more than 246,000 deaths to date, according to data from the Indian Ministry of Health. Experts say the numbers are likely seriously underreported, as many never make it to hospitals that are short of beds and oxygen.
What do we know?
The World Health Organization said on Monday it was reclassifying the strain as “a variant of concern.” It was previously called “variant of interest”, which corresponds to a lower alert level.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, technical officer for Covid-19 at the WHO, said some information suggests that B.1.617 has “increased transmissibility” and “reduced neutralization”.
The worrisome variants are more contagious, cause more serious disease or reduce the effectiveness of public health measures, vaccines or drugs, according to the United Nations health agency.
“We don’t have anything to suggest that our diagnostics, therapies and vaccines aren’t working,” she said at a press conference on Monday.
Other variants of concern include B.1.1.7 which was first identified in the UK and B.1.351 which was discovered in South Africa.
According to Gisaid, a platform where countries can share virus data, India’s B.1.617 strain has been detected in around 40 countries, including the US, UK and Singapore.
Did this spark India’s second wave?
The WHO said that multiple variants circulating in India demonstrate increased transmissibility, but B.1.617 has a higher growth rate.
The variant has sometimes been called a “double mutant” because it carries two mutations – E484Q and L452R – which can make the virus more contagious and better escape the body’s defenses. A third mutation in the variant, P681R, can potentially lead to “improved transmission,” the WHO said.
Virologists who spoke to CNBC said the terms “double mutation” or “triple mutation” are not scientifically accurate because B.1.617 has more than a dozen mutations.
K Srinath Reddy, chairman of the Public Health Foundation of India, said there was a widespread belief that the pandemic was over “forever” by January.
“It appeared that policymakers, industry, as well as the public, were eager to get back to normal life, get the economy back on track and really ignore the threat that was still there,” he said. he told CNBC’s “Capital Connection”. Last week.
“Like I said, we have turned our backs on the virus, but the virus has not turned its back on us. And now we are paying the price, ”Reddy said.
Do vaccines work?
“We had similar double mutants in our previous tests, and we are convinced, based on the data we had in the past, that we could see a similar mode of neutralization of this virus,” he said. stated, although BioNTech does not have sufficient data on B. 1.617 at this time.
Former White House health policy director Dr Kavita Patel said current vaccines had “some effectiveness,” but there had been “breakthrough infections” with variant B. 1.617.
“We are very worried. This is exactly the kind of set-up for what we call ‘leakage immunity’ – where the variant is so worrying and the body’s immune system can’t fight it, “she told” CNBC’s Squawk Box Asia ”. Last week.
– CNBC’s Saheli Roy Choudhury and Berkeley Lovelace Jr. contributed to this report.