The Health Ministry’s top advisory body will meet urgently on Monday to discuss the new strain of the novel coronavirus in the United Kingdom, which has triggered concern and prompted several European countries to stop incoming flights from the UK.
Sources said experts from AIIMS and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), along with a representative from the World Health Organisation (WHO), will attend the meeting on the new strain, which shows alterations in the spike protein that could theoretically make it more infectious.
Meanwhile, even as India’s top regulator has asked three vaccine manufacturers for additional data on late-stage trials to consider clearing their candidates for emergency use, Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan said on Sunday that he believes “personally” that India could be in a position to begin administering the vaccine to the public “maybe” next month.
“Our first priority has been the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. We don’t want to compromise on that. I personally feel, maybe in any week of January, we can be in a position to give first Covid vaccine shot to people of India,” news agency ANI quoted Dr Harsh Vardhan as saying.
Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, and Bharat Biotech have submitted applications for emergency use authorisation to the Central Drugs Standard Control Organisation (CDSCO) for their vaccine candidates.
“The Joint Monitoring Group headed by the Director-General of Health Services will be discussing this issue (of the UK strain) and make a recommendation to the Union Health Ministry. Besides experts from AIIMS, ICMR, and the WHO, the meeting will also be attended epidemiologists and experts from outside the government,” a top source said.
British media reported on Sunday that Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands have announced bans on flights carrying passengers from the UK, and that a similar move was being considered by France and Germany as well.
The Covid-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, which randomly carries out genetic sequencing of positive Covid-19 samples around Britain, has identified a new set of mutations in the virus, called VUI-202012/0. In a report on Saturday, COG-UK said one of the most important mutations, N501Y, occurs in the region of the spike protein, the receptor-binding domain (RBD), which the virus uses to bind to the human ACE2 receptor. “Changes in this region of the spike protein can result in the virus changing its ACE2 binding specificity and alter antibody recognition,” COG-UK has said.
The consortium, has however, emphasised that “at this point in time, there is no reason to believe that any of the mutations discussed here will affect vaccine efficacy”. The mutation has caused 1,100 new infections in 60 local authority areas, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has been quoted as saying. Earlier on December 14, Hancock had told the House of Commons that initial analysis revealed that the new variant “may be associated” with the recent rise in cases in southeast England.
The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) that advises the British government, has said that it has “moderate confidence that VUI-202012/01 demonstrates a substantial increase in transmissibility compared to other variants”.
But it has also said there are “currently insufficient data to draw any conclusion” on the mechanism of increased transmissibility and increased viral load. “The location of the mutations in the receptor-binding domain of the spike glycoprotein raises the possibility that this variant is antigenically distinct from prior variants. Four probable re-infections have been identified amongst 915 subjects with this variant but further work is needed to compare this reinfection rate with comparable data sets,” the advisory group has said.