Union Health Minister Harsh Vardhan on Monday sought to calm nerves over the new and more infectious strain of coronavirus gripping parts of the United Kingdom, saying the government was “fully alert”.
“Do not get tangled in imaginary situations, talks and panic. The government is fully alert. In the last one year, we have taken all necessary measures to ensure the safety of people. There’s no reason to panic so much,” Vardhan said on the sidelines of the India International Science Festival 2020.
The new strain of coronavirus, dubbed the “B.1.1.7 lineage” and believed to be far more infectious, has worried countries around the world, many of which, including India, have imposed travel bans on the UK.
Dr Randeep Guleria, director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi, said the mutation was an issue of concern and it was important to act early, though it was unlikely to have any major effect on the vaccines. Speaking at a media event, Guleria said, “We also need to develop a strategy to test this variant in our country, so that we can pick it up…The current worry (in UK) is more related to what they have found in terms of surge in the number of cases. It is not related to a surge in mortality.”
Even as the health ministry’s joint monitoring group headed by the director general of health services and the vaccine task force headed by Dr V K Paul, member of the NITI Aayog, and Principal Scientific Advisor Professor K Vijay Raghavan took stock of the new mutation, experts have backed Vardhan’s call to stop panic.
“We are studying all virus strains and no such mutation has been identified in India so far. We need to be watchful but people should not panic. We just need to continue taking the same precautions and protective measures,” said Samiran Panda, head of epidemiology and communicable diseases division at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).
Virologists said viruses mutate under immunological pressure, and during transmission between people often become weaker but more infectious. This happened in the case of influenza.
However, the true nature of the latest ‘genetic shift’ of the virus is still unknown. “Without a clinical setting, it is impossible to find out the severity of this virus. It is not the right time to draw an inference on whether the new mutation makes the virus weaker or stronger. Preventive measures are necessary,” Panda added.
India has access to the global database where countries share the genetic mutations of the virus to understand and monitor developments around it. The mutation has been caused by a change in the spike protein of the virus which is responsible for its entry into the human cells. Samples from different parts of the country are also being sent to the National Centre for Disease Control and the National Institute of Virology for sequencing.
A mutation depending upon whether it causes an increased change in infectiousness or virulence can be categorised as a shift (major change) or a drift (minor change). Virologists are describing the latest change as a shift since it has increased the infectiousness.
“There is no data to show this (UK’s strain) virus is more deadlier… It is common for any virus to mutate because the virus wants to survive. Till date 4,000 mutations have taken place in coronavirus,” said Dr Satyanarayana Mysore, head of interventional pulmonology, Manipal Hospitals and part of Karnataka’s Covid task force.
However, the new strain is of concern since it could affect the rate of spread and R (reproduction) number of the virus. This, in turn, could end up burdening the hospitals and overall health care infrastructure if not controlled in time.
“It seems that this new virus has become more infectious but not as virulent. But even if the virulence is the same as now and it affects more people, it means more deaths. There is no clarity on this aspect yet,” said Dr J C Suri, director and head of pulmonology (critical care and sleep medicine) Fortis Hospital.