The variant features two mutations coming together in the same virus. Speaking to the BBC, Ashoka University virologist Dr. Shahid Jameel explains that this double mutation in key areas of the spike protein "may increase [serious infection] risks and allow the virus to escape the immune system." Jameel also warns that the mutations may cause the new variant to evade antibodies and cause vaccines to be less effective.
The double mutant strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus – the pathogen behind COVID-19 – was traced to the western Indian state of Maharashtra, the country's second-most populous state. Scientists from the Indian SARS-COV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), a group of 10 national laboratories under the Indian Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, identified it alongside 770 other strains using genomic sequencing.
From the more than 10,000 samples collected across 18 Indian states, 736 showed the B117 variant from the United Kingdom first identified in December 2020. The B1351 South African variant appeared in 34 samples, while the P1 variant from the city of Manaus in Brazil showed up in one sample.
According to INSACOG scientists, none of the variants appeared to be circulating widely enough to cause a surge in cases. Their comments followed a spike in COVID-19 cases in India, after the country managed to dramatically bring down case counts earlier. Based on Johns Hopkins University data, India currently has 11.8 million COVID-19 cases, with 160,949 deaths and 11.2 million recoveries.
Nevertheless, INSACOG said it would monitor the new double mutant variant. The consortium also called on Indian authorities to boost testing efforts and ensure new cases caused by the double mutant variant are swiftly quarantined. The government subsequently implemented additional restrictions, alongside an ongoing vaccination drive, to curb the coronavirus's spread.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare said in a March 24 statement that samples collected from Maharashtra state reflected "an increase in the fraction of samples with the E484Q and L452R mutations." It continued that "such [double] mutations confer immune escape and increased infectivity."
But the health ministry denied that the double mutant strain was responsible for India's rising caseload. "Though [variants of concern] and a new double mutant variant have been found in India, these have not been detected in numbers sufficient to … explain the rapid increase in cases in some [Indian] states," the statement added. (Related: India discovers first "double-mutant" COVID strain as new cases surge.)
Jameel posited that there may be a "separate lineage developing in India" which merged the E484Q and L452R mutations into one. As such, he called for extra vigilance to ensure the mutations do not circulate.
"We need to constantly monitor and make sure none of the variants of concern are spreading in the population. The fact that it is not happening now doesn't mean it will not happen in the future," he told BBC News correspondent Soutik Biswas earlier in March.
The latest COVID-19 surge that commenced in March comes amid a "delicate phase" for India. The country's healthcare system had been exhausted after fighting a year-long battle against the pathogen. Given this, states have already begun reintroducing various restrictions – including curfews and intermittent lockdowns – to stop the coronavirus in its tracks. (Related: India's coronavirus lockdown devolves into a catastrophe.)
The cities of Delhi and Mumbai have also ordered randomized rapid antigen testing at transportation hubs such as airports and train stations. Shopping malls and other crowded areas are also mandated to test people for the coronavirus using antigen test kits. But despite these restrictions, Indians had them as the last thing on their minds during the week-long Holi celebrations – which commemorate the start of spring.
Visit Pandemic.news to read more about the Wuhan coronavirus's different strains circulating worldwide.