After reporting less than 10,000 cases per day earlier this year, India breached the 2 lakh mark on 15th April 2021 for the first time and has been doing so since then.
The new surge is being related to the discovery of a new strain of coronavirus.
Genome sequencing data submitted by Indian scientists to a global database suggests that 61% of samples obtained from Maharashtra between January and March have shown a double mutation.
The analysis also showed that a number of mutated samples were detected in West Bengal. The 117 mutated samples from Bengal accounted for 9% of all samples studied from the state. The Double Mutant Strain has also Seen in Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Karnataka.
Double Mutant Strain has also been detected in the USA, UK, Singapore, and Australia.
What is the double mutant strain?
The double mutation refers to some changes in its genome – E484Q (glutamate is substituted by glutamine at the 484th spot of the spike protein) and L452R (replacement of leucine with arginine at the 452nd position).
This double mutant strain was named B.1.617.
Other than the two mutations, there is also a third significant mutation in some cases, P614R.
All three mutations are on the spike protein of the virus which is its functional component that binds to cells of the body.
These mutations have been separately found in many other coronavirus variants but in India, they have come together for the first time in the world. For example, the L452R mutation was found in the United States and the E484Q mutation was found in the UK and South Africa.
Scientists say that mutations are not rare and happen continuously as a virus spreads. The novel coronavirus, just like other viruses, keeps changing in small ways as it passes from one person to another.
Why the alarm?
Granted that we do not have adequate scientific evidence to confirm the link between the current surge and the new strain at this point in time, studying the UK and South African mutations (which are similar to our own) and the pattern of the Spanish flu 100 years ago indicates that the new strain is at least more transmissible, if not more deadly, than that of last year. This also reflects in the data obtained by the genome sequencing committee.
It can attach to ACE2 entry receptors faster and can evade the body’s immune system. In simple words, it is hard to detect and kill.
In some cases, the mutated virus can infect those who have already had COVID, though uncommon.
This shines a beacon of concern, considering India is fighting a losing war in its current scenario. Several states have flagged vaccine shortages, supply of medical oxygen is dwindling, hospital beds are scarce and the vital drug Remdesivir is not available.
Desperate patients are resorting to the black market to procure these at high prices, and some are still failing. People’s resistance to following COVID norms and ongoing rallies and gatherings are aggravating the situation.
There is yet another concern. An increasing number of healthcare workers who have been inoculated with two full doses of the COVID vaccine are testing positive for the virus. This has shaken the belief that vaccines confer protection against the new strain.
Although studies are yet to be conducted to establish the credibility of the speculated vaccine resistance of the new strain, it is still gravely worrying. Scientists however have reassured that vaccines still provide protection, even if it is less than normal.
What can you do?
India is one of the five nations of the world that currently produces COVID-19 vaccines, and is also the largest producer in terms of volume. Officials are requesting eligible citizens (everyone above 45) to get vaccinated. Amping up the vaccination drive is the only permanent solution to the pandemic and to prevent more mutations.
The new strain is the result of our own carelessness. Viruses mutate as they spread from person to person. Indians relaxing COVID norms after seeing the first wave ebb, not wearing masks, attending large gatherings has given the virus its chance to mutate – and now it’s back again.
Lockdowns and curfews are being imposed in different parts of the country again. It goes without saying, wearing a mask is mandatory – and please cover your nose; it’s of no use otherwise.
Sanitize frequently, try to take away food instead of dining in, and keep your holiday plans on a temporary halt.
Scientists have reassured there’s light at the end of the tunnel. The second wave is likely to start ebbing in a few weeks from now. Historically, following the example of the Spanish flu in 1918, there were three waves out of which the second was the most severe. The third wave was mild.
The worst is not over yet. Be responsible and hang on.