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Ministry: 4 found with South Africa Covid strain, one with Brazil variant

Five persons who returned recently to India have been detected with the infectious Covid-19 variants found in South Africa and Brazil, the Union Health Ministry said on Tuesday.

Written by Kaunain Sheriff M | New Delhi |
February 17, 2021 4:10:15 am
Of the four who were found to have the South Africa variant, known as ‘B.1.351’, one had returned from Angola, one from Tanzania, and two from South Africa.

Five persons who returned recently to India have been detected with the infectious Covid-19 variants found in South Africa and Brazil, the Union Health Ministry said on Tuesday.

Dr Balram Bhargava, Director General, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), said the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia (INSACOG) had detected the South Africa variant, associated with the faster spread of novel coronavirus infection, in four persons in January, while another person had been detected with the infectious Brazil variant of SARS-CoV-2 virus earlier this month.

“All travellers and contacts have been tested and quarantined,” he said.

Of the four who were found to have the South Africa variant, known as ‘B.1.351’, one had returned from Angola, one from Tanzania, and two from South Africa.

Bhargava said the National Institute of Virology, Pune, was “attempting to isolate and culture” the South Africa variant, while the Brazil variant has been “successfully” isolated. “Experiments to assess vaccine effectiveness are underway,” he said on the Brazil variant.

According to the Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the South Africa strain accounts for at least 80 per cent of new cases identified during the country’s second wave of the pandemic.

On February 7, on the basis of a study conducted by a team at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, the South African government announced a temporary hold on the rollout of the University of Oxford/ AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India following reports that the vaccine only offered “minimal protection” against mild and moderate cases of Covid-19 infections.

However, a day later, the World Health Organisation said it was “important to note” that primary analysis of data from Phase III trials had revealed that “in the context of viral settings without this (South Africa) variant” the AstraZeneca/ Oxford vaccine offers protection against severe disease, hospitalisation and death. “This means it is vitally important now to determine the vaccine’s effectiveness when it comes to preventing more severe illness caused by the B.1.351 variant,” it said.

Bhargava said the South Africa and Brazil variants have mutations that are different from the UK variant detected in December last year. “These two variants are different from the UK variant. In the UK variant, we saw mutation in the spike protein. In these two, the mutation is in the receptor-binding domain (RBD); therefore, the virus is able to bind to human ACE2 receptor in lungs with ease,” he said.

“The B.1.351 emerged independently in South Africa and was first reported in mid-December 2020. This has multiple mutations, including in the receptor binding domain of spike protein. The majority of cases in South Africa are due to this variant strain, and this has spread to 44 countries,” Bhargava said.

He said that the Brazil variant (‘P.1 lineage’) has spread to 15 countries. “P.1 lineage variant emerged independently in Brazil in early January 2021 and is attributed to a large re-spike of cases in Brazil, particularly in Manaus. It also has mutations in the receptor-binding domain of spike protein and has increased transmissibility. This variant has spread to 15 countries,” Bhargava said.

Dr V K Paul, Member, NITI Aayog, said the emergence of the two variants was a matter of concern. “This virus has not gone away. It is still affecting our population and can raise the number of cases. This is a concern….we already have a UK variant in our country. Hopefully, these variants will not cause a catastrophic situation in the country. But it just shows that vigil to contain these disease must continue,” he said.

Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said that all returnees from South Africa and Brazil will be tested and their samples will be sent for genome sequencing. He said that with the UK variant, “100 per cent RTPCR test and genome sequencing was conducted on all the positive samples. This strategy has worked well and the same strategy will be adopted for flights from Brazil and South Africa”.

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