Maharashtra has seen a surge of Covid-19 cases in the past week, with 5,210 new cases reported on Monday. This comes at a time when two new variants of the virus have been found in samples in the state’s Vidarbha region.

Since February 15, more than 2,400 Covid-19 cases have been reported in Amravati district, and 500 new cases in Yavatmal district. The state government imposed a ten-day lockdown in Yavatmal on Thursday and on Sunday, it announced a strict week-long lockdown in Amravati.

On February 18, the Indian Express reported that during genome sequencing of Covid-19 infected blood samples, researchers found the “E484K” mutation of the virus in four samples from Amravati. Since this mutation has been found in the new, fast-spreading Covid strains in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, district officials have been concerned that the variant could transmit quickly across Maharashtra and the country.

Researchers in Maharashtra also found the “N440K” mutation in one sample from Yavatmal. The N440K variant had been found in Andhra Pradesh and parts of north India in December 2020.

Last week, the Maharashtra state government denied the detection of any mutations of the virus similar to the ones found in the UK, Brazil or South Africa. But on Saturday, Dr Randeep Guleria, chief of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, stated that the new strain found in Amravati is “highly transmissible and dangerous”, and could cause re-infections among people who have already had Covid-19.

On Tuesday, further acknowledgement of the new strains came at a national press conference on Covid-19, when officials said two variants – E484K and N440K – had indeed been observed in samples from Maharashtra, Kerala and Telangana. The director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, however, stated that these variants cannot, for now, be linked to the surge in cases of the virus.

So how worried should citizens be about these new Maharashtra mutations of the novel coronavirus? How much do people know about the new variants and what do experts want the public to do to protect themselves?

What are the new mutations?

Infectious viruses are known to mutate when they jump from one body to another, and thousands of Covid-19 mutations have been recorded across the globe since the outbreak of the pandemic last year. Some mutant variants, however, are more infectious than others, such as the UK variant that triggered a second lockdown in Britain over the past few months. In India, over 241 different mutations have been reported so far, but the new ones in Maharashtra have sparked concerns because their presence has been detected at a time when cases have risen significantly in those districts.

In Maharashtra, the E484K mutation was first found in four out of 12 virus-infected blood samples from Amravati. In all four cases, the infected persons had no travel history outside of the district, and they had not been in contact with each other, but their entire families had tested positive for Covid-19.

Dr Shashank Joshi, a member of the state’s Covid-19 task force, told the Indian Express on Saturday that the rise in cases in a “cluster pattern” in Amravati and Yavatmal indicate that “a mutation is passing through these districts”.

Amravati, Yavatmal and neighbouring Akola district have now sent 265 samples to Pune’s BJ Medical College for genome sequencing, to determine whether the E484K and N440K variants are responsible for the rapid rise in Covid-19 cases in those districts. The samples sent have been taken from patients who died of Covid-19, asymptomatic patients, as well as those with mild and severe symptoms.

“We sent 100 samples from Amravati, of which some patients have been twice-positive,” said Dr Prashant Thakare, head of the district’s molecular laboratory that has been collecting and storing samples. The laboratory no longer has the first set of blood samples from patients who had contracted Covid-19 for a second time. “We do not have the capacity to store old samples and previous Covid guidelines allowed us to destroy them, so we will not be able to compare old samples with new ones.”

The Maharashtra state health department, however, has claimed that BJ Medical College is not authorised to carry out genome sequences.

Will vaccines fight the mutations?

As of now, experts are not certain whether the two Covid-19 vaccines available in India – Covishield and Covaxin – would be effective against the Maharashtra mutations.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, known in India as Covishield, was found to be effective against the UK strain of the virus in an ongoing study at Oxford University earlier this month. South Africa, however, halted its roll out of the same vaccine due to its low efficacy on the new variant of the virus.

In the case of the N440K variant first reported in Andhra Pradesh and north India, genome scientists at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research found that it could evade antibodies generated by the body’s immune system. But they would need to study it further to understand the effect of available vaccines on it.

Dr Prashant Thakare pointed out that the results of the genome sequences could take a long time to be released, since it is not an easy process and involves the generation and study of large amounts of data.

How can people stay safe?

At a Covid-19 press conference on Tuesday, the union health ministry announced that the Centre will dispatch special teams to Maharashtra, Kerala and other states where cases have been surging, to better understand the causes behind the rising numbers.

In Maharashtra, even though more information about the new variants of Covid-19 is awaited, experts agree that they may only partly be responsible for the surge in cases.

The main reason, they say, is the fact that people are no longer strictly following Covid protection protocols in public any more: large numbers of people are now attending group events, not practicing physical distancing and not wearing masks properly.

“People have assumed that the risk is over, but we cannot afford to do that,” said Dr Jacob John, one of India’s leading virologists.

The confirmation of the new variants, in fact, calls for higher levels of precaution.

“In the districts where the new variants have been found,” said John, “all transportation in and out must be restricted, masks and hand sanitisation should be mandatory and social distancing must be followed very strictly in public. The lockdown must be exactly like last year – no relenting, no relaxations.”

Outside of these districts too, John, Thakare and other experts believe people must be careful not to let down their guard. “If all Covid-19 protocols are followed, the emergence of new variants can be controlled,” said Yogesh Shouche, a senior microbiologist at Pune’s National Centre for Cell Sciences.