Updated: December 30, 2020 7:12:34 am
The vaccines developed against the novel coronavirus would remain effective despite the emergence of the new, more contagious strain in the United Kingdom, India’s top government medical experts said on Tuesday.
However, they cautioned that injudicious use of unproven therapies against Covid-19 puts “immune pressure” on the virus, which can lead to mutations.
The government on Tuesday announced that at least six persons who have returned recently from the United Kingdom have been found positive for the new “variant under investigation”, which is being called VUI-202012/01.
Three of the positive samples were detected at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, two at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, and one at the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune. The Pune sample is from a man from Chennai, officials in Maharashtra said.
“All these persons have been kept in single-room isolation in designated health care facilities by respective state governments. Their close contacts have also been put under quarantine. Comprehensive contact tracing has been initiated for co-travellers, family contacts, and others. Genome sequencing on other specimens is going on,” the Health Ministry said.
Around 33,000 passengers had landed in various Indian airports from the UK between November 25 and December 23, when flights to and from that country were stopped. “All these passengers are being tracked and subjected by states to RT-PCR tests. So far, only 114 have been found positive [for all variants of the virus],” the Ministry said.
All samples from UK returnees that test positive in RT-PCR tests will be put through genome sequencing, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan told reporters. Also, as part of extensive surveillance, 5 per cent of positive samples in the general population of the country will also be subjected to genome sequencing, Bhushan said.
Prof K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor to the Government of India, said that besides testing and sequencing of samples from international travellers, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) will also carry out sequencing of samples from those being admitted to hospitals.
“…We should also keep in mind, given the widespread prevalence of the virus, these kind of variants that have arisen can arise elsewhere,” Prof VijayRaghavan said. “We are not only sequencing the samples by choosing representative samples but we will also test the samples in laboratories to see whether infectivity has increased and do field studies to see if the transmission of any variant has increased.”
Prof VijayRaghavan, however, stressed that vaccines would work against the new strains as well. “The vaccines will work against the new variants reported in the UK and South Africa. Most vaccines target the spike of the virus, in which there are changes in the variant. Therefore, there is a concern if the vaccine will work… But vaccines stimulate our immune system to produce a wide range of protective antibodies. So the changes in the variants are not sufficient to make the vaccines ineffective, which is a positive reassurance,” he said.
“…The UK and the South African variants do not compromise the polyclonal antibody response. And all vaccine responses are currently polyclonal antibody responses, which target multiple parts of the protein, most of which are not affected by these changes,” Prof VijayRaghavan said.
Prof Balram Bhargava, DG, Indian Council of Medical Research, emphasised that physicians should only use therapies that show benefits. “The question arises why should these variations occur? These variations occur because of immune pressure on the virus. This immune pressure may be related to the environment, the host, treatment, or other modalities,” he said.
“Therefore, it is important from the scientific community’s perspective that we don’t put too much immune pressure on the virus. We have to maintain the judicious use of therapies which are going to benefit; if the benefit is not established, we should not use them. Otherwise, it will put immense immune pressure on the virus, which then will tend to mutate more. Therapies that are well established should be used,” Prof Bhargava said.
The Health Secretary said at the briefing that 52 per cent of Covid-19 cases in India were in the 18-44 age group; however, mortality analyses show that 55 per cent of deaths were in the 60 years and above age group.
“The analysis of Covid-19 cases on the basis of age shows that 8 per cent of them are below 17 years of age; 13 per cent of them are in the 18-25 age group; 39 per cent in the 26-44 age group; 26 per cent are in 45-60 years age group; 14 per cent are in the 60 and above years age group. Therefore, maximum cases are in the younger population, which is mobile,” Bhushan said.
“The situation is different in mortality analysis. 1 per cent deaths were in below 17 years of age; 1 per cent were in 18-25 years age group; 10 per cent in 26-44 years age group; 33 per cent are in 45-60 years age group; 55 per cent are in 60 and above years age group. This shows that the younger population has the capability to recover, and since co-morbidity is higher in the older population, more deaths are reported in that age group,” he said.
In Hyderabad, Dr Divya Tej Sowpati, head of the genome sequencing team at CCMB, said, “We have needed to expedite the viral genome sequencing efforts, and check for the presence of the new variant in India. We have used both the traditional Sanger sequencing method as well as modern next-gen sequencing tools.”
CCMB Director Dr Rakesh Mishra said, “The measures to avoid infection still remain the same. Using masks when in presence of others, avoiding crowded places, maintaining physical distance are the most effective and feasible ways for avoiding this virus, including the new variant.” He underlined that it was “very important to launch extensive genome surveillance of the virus to assess the extent of the spread of the new variant”. Also, Dr Mishra said, “We should also keep an eye on other variants that might emerge independently, as India houses the second largest population infected with this virus at present.”
(With Anuradha Mascarenhas in Pune)
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