The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on Tuesday announced that genome sequencing will be conducted on all international passengers who arrived in India in the 14 days from December 9 to 22 if they test positive for the coronavirus and are symptomatic. This came hours after the Indian government found six people who returned from the United Kingdom in recent weeks with a more infectious strain of the coronavirus, that has prompted alarm across the world.
At a press conference, the health ministry said that it has set up a consortium of 10 laboratories to conduct genome sequencing, which can provide crucial information about how a virus is evolving or if new variants are emerging, how the virus is spreading from one place to another and whether cases in a given cluster are linked to one another.
Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said that the labs will be equipped to do genome sequencing of any variant of the coronavirus. He added that the laboratories belong to the health ministry, the Indian Council of Medical Research, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and Biotech India.
Bhushan said that the government had done 5,000 genome sequences before the emergence of the new variant. “Now we’ll be significantly increasing that number and would be working in a coordinated manner,” he said, according to ANI.
Meanwhile, the Centre’s Principal Scientific Advisor K Vijay Raghavan said there was no evidence to suggest that vaccines which are being developed won’t work against the mutations detected in both the UK and South Africa. “Most vaccines do target the spike protein, in which there are changes in the variants but vaccines stimulate our immune system to produce a wide range of protective antibodies,” he said.
Indian Council of Medical Research Director General Balram Bhargava, on the other hand, said that it was important not to put too much immune pressure on virus. “We’ve to maintain judicious use of therapies which are going to benefit,” he said. “If benefit isn’t established we shouldn’t use those therapies otherwise it will put pressure on virus and it’ll tend to mutate more.”
NITI Aayog Member (Health) VK Paul emphasised on the need to be extremely vigilant because of the coronavirus mutation. He added that a huge chunk of the population in India was susceptible to the coronavirus because of the cold weather. “The UK variant has travelled to several other countries and also to India, this variant may have its own run and we have to very careful,” Paul said.
India’s coronavirus tally rose to 1,02,24,303 on Tuesday morning as it reported 16,432 new cases in 24 hours. This is the lowest daily spike in infections since June 24. The country’s toll went up by 252 to 1,48,153. There are 2,68,581 active cases, while as many as 98,07,569 people have recovered from the disease so far.
The new variant
More than 50 countries, including India, have imposed travel restrictions on the UK, in an effort to prevent the spread of the new variant. India has suspended flights from the UK till December 31. Some, like France, have imposed total border closures amid widespread disruptions in trade and travel.
The new UK virus variant, which scientists have named “VUI – 202012/01”, includes a genetic mutation in the “spike” protein, which could result in coronavirus spreading more easily between people. It was first announced by Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, on December 14, and was subsequently confirmed by Public Health England and the UK’s Covid-19 sequencing consortium. Screening back through databases of SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes Covid-19, the first sample was taken in the county of Kent on September 20.
The variant carries 14 defining mutations including seven in the spike protein, which mediates entry of the virus into human cells. This is a relatively large number of changes compared to the many variants in circulation globally. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed that this was as much as 70% more transmissible than previous versions. But there is currently no evidence that the variant is more likely to cause severe coronavirus infections or that it would render vaccines less effective.
Last week, the World Health Organization had tried to allay the concerns and said the strain could be controlled using existing measures.