Scientists and public health experts are closely following the spread of a variant of the new coronavirus that is believed to have originated in India.
The country was even added to the UK’s “red list” – of which Portugal has already been a part – of international travel, in response to growing concern over the huge volumes of cases there.
But how concerned should we be with this new variant and what could it mean for the progress of the fight against the pandemic?
The new variant
The variant, known as B.1.617, has been classified as a “variant under investigation” by Public Health England (PHE), the British national health care system, as researchers are acquiring and collecting more data.
It is not yet formally considered as serious as the Brazilian or South African variants, which PHE classifies as “worrying variants”.
However, this strain has a double mutation that can make the virus more easily avoid the body’s immune response – including that produced by the vaccine.
However, this information has not yet been achieved in scientific terms. In fact, George Eustice, secretary of the UK government, said that the first data suggest that B.1.617 has not spread quickly.
I am told that there is no evidence, at the moment, that this particular variant is capable of bypassing the vaccine or that it is necessarily more contagious than the others – but we are examining that“, said the official to Sky News.
Potentially more dangerous
The Indian variant consists of two mutations in the virus’s spike protein. This protein, in addition to giving the name ‘corona’ to the virus, allows invasion into our body.
This mutation allows the virus to spread quickly through the body and escape antibodies produced by the immune system or developed as a result of a vaccine.
Experts also say that there is a risk that people who have recovered from a Covid-19 infection, or who have been vaccinated, may not be able to resist as easily against this new variant.
What mutations does the variant have?
The mutations found in the Indian variant are identified as E484Q and E484K.
They are known mutations, in addition, in other variants, having already been identified in the strain of Manaus and in the South African.
In some cases, they were even detected in the British variant, B.1.1.7.
WHO expert Maria Van Kerkhove says that the mutations detected have some similarities with others already registered and that they can cause more infections and, in some cases, “Can reduce neutralization, which can have an impact on measures such as vaccines”.
The expert said that WHO is working with India and other countries to increase genetic sequencing in the world and to detect and evaluate variants of interest and those considered “worrying”.
This new variant was discovered through the action of INSACOG, a consortium of ten national laboratories that has been tracing the genomic sequence of the virus, in order to map the entire genetic code of SARS-CoV-2.
The virus’s genetic code works like an instruction manual. Virus mutations are common, but most of them are insignificant and do not change your ability to transmit or cause serious infections.
However, some mutations, such as those in the United Kingdom or South Africa, can make the virus more infectious and, in some cases, even more deadly.