India has classified a new variant of the coronavirus first identified in Europe as a “variant of concern”, but it’s too early to really tell, reports BBC.
A mutation is elevated from a “variant of interest” to a “variant of concern” (VOC) when it shows evidence of fulfilling at least one of several criteria, including easy transmission, more severe illness, reduced neutralisation by antibodies or reduced effectiveness of treatment and vaccines.India’s health ministry says studies showed that the so-called Delta plus variant - also known as AY.1 - spreads more easily, binds more easily to lung cells and is potentially resistant to monoclonal antibody therapy, a potent intravenous infusion of antibodies to neutralise the virus.
The variant is related to the Delta, an existing variant of concern, which was first identified in India last year and is thought to have driven the deadly second wave of infections in the summer. The health ministry says the Delta plus variant, first found in India in April, has been detected in around 40 samples from six districts in three states - Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. At least 16 of these samples were found in Maharashtra, one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic.
Delta plus has also been found in nine other countries - USA, UK, Portugal, Switzerland, Japan, Poland, Nepal, Russia and China - compared to the original highly contagious Delta strain, which has now spread to 80 countries.
Viruses mutate all the time and most changes are inconsequential. Some even harm the virus. But others can make the disease more infectious or threatening - and these mutations tend to dominate.
But leading virologists have questioned the labelling of Delta plus as a variant of concern, saying there was no data yet to prove that the variant was more infectious or led to more severe disease compared to other variants.
“There is no data yet to support the variant of concern claim,” said Dr Gagandeep Kang, a virologist and the first Indian woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London.“You need biological and clinical information in order to consider whether it is truly a variant of concern.”
This means India needs more data to determine whether the variant is neutralised by antibodies generated by available vaccines or infection by another variant of the coronavirus.
Also, extensive data is needed about the increase in transmissibility, diagnostic failures - routine tests not picking up the variant - and whether the variant is causing more severe disease.