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The coronavirus variant from India may not represent as much of a danger as feared by some, according to scientists.
The variant is thought to be behind India’s devastating second wave of the pandemic, and has now spread to at least 69 countries, including Thailand, with 15 cases reported in a construction-worker camp on Friday.
This month the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it as a global “variant of concern,” due to its higher ease of transmission and to a possible lower effectiveness of existing vaccines against it. (Read more here).
With global concerns around the virus mounting, India’s healthcare system collapsing, and with cases of the strain rising in other nations, the recent string of infections in Thailand could have serious consequences for the country. With the latest report on the spread of the strain, concerns will only grow, especially as people wait for the vaccines.
Here is an update on what we know so far about the variant first identified in India and known as B.1.617.
Despite emerging studies suggesting that the vaccines have a lower efficacy rate on the variant, researchers said that the vaccines are still effective and will ultimately still work against the variant. The WHO, in an update in May 2021, said that although there may be evidence of “reduced neutralization by antibodies,” the current vaccines will continue to be effective in working against the variant.
Scientists across the globe are also increasingly confident that the vaccines will work.
On Thursday, BioNTech’s company chief executive, Ugur Sahin, affirmed that the company’s Covid-19 vaccine, Pfizer, will be effective against the B.1.617 variant, as it worked against the South African variant. Sahin said that the studies suggested the antibodies triggered by Pfizer were able to fight the strain from India.
Earlier this month, the UK’s health secretary also stated his confidence in the AstraZeneca, Pfizer, and Moderna vaccines, saying that there is “very early data” from Oxford University that the vaccines will offer protection against the virus.
The latest finding from Public Health England (PHE) on Sunday revealed that the Pfizer vaccine was found to be 88 per cent effective at stopping symptomatic infections from the variant, while the AstraZeneca jab was 60 per cent effective. Both numbers, according the UK health experts, are highly successful.
The AstraZeneca jab was 60% effective against the Indian variant, compared with 66% against the Kent variant.
Data reviewed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) earlier in May also suggest that the mRNA Covid-19 vaccines, namely Pfizer and Moderna, appear to be effective against the variant. “So far, overall, we are pretty confident that the vaccines will be effective against this variant,” said the EMA vaccine strategy manager Marco Cavaleri during a press conference.
Although the WHO has yet to fully approve any vaccine developed by a non-Western country, a peer-reviewed study by Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) found that the locally produced Covaxin has been effective in neutralizing all the key emerging variants, including the B.1.617.
Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the US president, also backed these findings. In an interview late April, Dr Fauci said that although it is “something where we’re still gaining data on a daily basis”, according to the most recent information based on blood taken from recovering patients, the Covaxin was found to neutralise the B.1.617 variant.
Shao Yiming, a leading disease control expert with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in Beijing on Thursday that the current Chinese vaccines, according to preliminary research, are also likely to be effective in protecting against the variant from India “to a certain extent.”
Shao added that although India has yet to approach Chinese companies in importing any of their vaccines to tackle its coronavirus outbreak, China has been paying attention to the outbreak in India and is accumulating more research and data on it. So far, the vaccines are believed to be effective.
China is currently employing five vaccines in its mass immunization campaign; three vaccines from Sinovac and Sinopharm; a one-shot vaccine from CanSino; and one from CDC in partnership with Anhui Zhifei Longcom.
China’s Sinopharm was green lighted by the WHO for emergency use globally earlier this month, making it the first non-Western vaccine to be approved by the agency.
A matter of public health response
The reason why the virus has ravaged India so badly, as new reports finds, may be the fact that the Indian government ignored warnings by its scientific advisers ahead of the surge. In early March, a forum of scientific advisers set up by the government had warned the officials of a new and more contagious variant, but authorities did not heed to the concerns.
Earlier this month, four of the advisers appointed by the Indian government told Reuters that the Indian federal government “did not seek to impose major restrictions to stop the spread of the virus,” and continued to approve mass religious gatherings and political rallies held by its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. Earlier this week, the South Asian country’s top virologic, Shahid Jameel, had also quit India’s Covid-19 panel.
Although reportedly more contagious, experts are confident that the same public health and social distancing measures, such as sanitizing, masks, and social distancing, can still prevent the spread of the virus.
For unvaccinated people, the risks imposed by the B.1.617 variant, or any variant for that matter, remain high. The cases in the UK, for example, were also among unvaccinated individuals. Although the vaccines are less effective on the variant, scientists believe the current vaccines will still help control it and mitigate the severity that may come with it.
Changes to the vaccine designs will need to be made as the virus will continue to mutate, but the current production process of the vaccines available will still be able to slow the spread of the disease.
The B.1.617 was first identified in Maharashtra, India back in October 2020. Although more research has to be done, health authorities and experts believe that it is behind the second wave and current health crisis in India, which has resulted in over 26 million cases and 291,365 deaths. Health experts believe that those numbers are still vastly under-reported due to the country’s weak healthcare infrastructure, hospitals being overrun, and people dying at home.
Nepal, neighbouring India, is also experiencing a record of more than 9,000 cases per day after the variant spread across the border. Experts believe that with this rate, the country could surpass India in cases and deaths per million people.
A sublineage of the variant, the B.1.617.2, is also behind the latest surge of coronavirus cases in the UK, with cases rising more than 160 per cent in the past week. According to data from Public Health England (PHE), there have now been 3,424 confirmed cases, with the first detected in February. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that evidence suggests it is more transmissible than the Kent variant.