All India Institute of Medical Sciences Director Randeep Guleria on Wednesday said it was possible that the more contagious and genetically distinct variant of the coronavirus had penetrated Indian borders in November, a month before it was officially reported in the country, reported ANI.

“There is a possibility that this may happen because we must remember that this strain was first reported in the end of September and there were people who have an infection with this strain in the United Kingdom,” Guleria told the news agency. In India, the first official six cases of the new strain were reported on December 23. By December 30, the tally was up to 20.

Guleria, however, said it was difficult to say for sure when exactly the first cases were reported. “It will depend upon data,” he added. “There are studies being done in our country by the SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia (INSACOG), which are looking at the samples even from November onwards.”

The AIIMS director noted that even though the number of cases in the country “was not very high,” the fact that India had not suspended travel with Britain in September needs to be taken into account.

“If you look at the data from Holland, they have said that there were persons who reported this strain even before it was reported by UK as a global warning in December,” Guleria added. “So, there is a possibility that this strain may have been even before December and it may have entered in India in November or early part of December.”

‘Need to be extra careful’

The strain that was found in the United Kingdom is not the first new variant of the pandemic virus to emerge, but is said to be up to 70% more transmissible than the previously dominant variant. While it was first seen in Britain in September, 62% of Covid-19 cases in London by the week of December 9 were due to the new variant.

This means it is spreading faster, making the pandemic harder to control and increasing the risk it will also spread swiftly in other countries.

Guleria said the “more infectious” character of the new strain was indeed alarming. “The reason of concern with this UK strain is that pre-epidemiological data shows it is more infectious and spreads more rapidly as far as disease is concerned,” he said.

But at the same time, Guleria said the new strain – even if it did enter India before December – had not yet caused a “significant effect on our cases and hospitalisation”.

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“If you look at it epidemiologically this strain leads to an increase in effectiveness that means a large number of people get infected,” he said. “Now, if you look at our data for the last four to six weeks, there was no spike in the number of cases. We are consistently showing a downward trend.”

But we need to be “extra careful,” Guleria said, in order to avoid the new strain from spreading rapidly in the country. He said the government was taking all necessary steps – in terms of suspending travel from Britain and undertaking genome sequencing – to understand the extent of spread of the new strain in India.

“In case there is an increase in the number of cases, we are [will be] able to take action,” the medical expert added. “India is in a very good position, our daily new cases have come down, our recovery rate is high and the case fatality rate is down.”

Will vaccines protect against new variant?

Guleria said there’s no evidence that vaccines currently being developed in India and other countries, will not protect against this variant.

“Vaccines act by producing antibodies that are directed against the spike protein,” he explained. “The spike protein is the antigen that produces the antibodies. But the vaccine acts at multiple sites of this spike protein and the mutation has occurred in only a small area of the spike protein. So the vaccine will still be effective in producing antibodies.”

Vaccines also produce Cell-mediated immunity, or T-Cell immunity, he added. Cell-mediated immunity is an immune response that does not involve antibodies, but the destruction of infected cells by cytotoxic T cells.

“Therefore, vaccines are producing immunity in a person by multiple mechanisms and therefore, the vaccines that are coming out will still be effective against this variant,” Guleria said.