The Union government on Thursday advised states and Union Territories to take note of a new variant of the Covid-19 virus and asked them to ensure rigorous screening of international travellers, ANI reported.

In a letter to all states and Union Territories, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said that the National Centre for Disease Control has received information about B.1.1.529 variant of the coronavirus. Three cases of the variant have so far been reported in Botswana, six cases in South Africa and one case in Hong Kong, the letter stated.

“This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country, in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel,” Bhushan said in the letter.

The health secretary also noted that all three countries where the mutant strain has been detected are in the government’s “at risk” category in terms of international travel. His letter stated that travellers to India from all “at risk” countries must be subjected to rigorous screening and testing.

The Centre has also asked states and Union Territories to ensure that samples of travellers from foreign countries who test positive should be sent for genome sequencing.

B.1.1.529 variant

South African scientists have detected the B.1.1.529 variant and are working to understand its possible implications, Reuters reported on Thursday.

The scientists told reporters that the variant has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, and that these mutations may help it evade the body’s immune system.

The new variant may have developed during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, Bloomberg quoted Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute as saying. Balloux said that the person may have been an untreated HIV/AIDS patient.

South Africa has sought an urgent meeting of the World Health Organization’s working group on virus evolution in the light of the findings about the B.1.1.529 variant.