The Union Health Ministry on Tuesday said two new strains of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19, have been detected in India. These new strains N440K and E484K — have been detected in Kerala and Maharashtra.
However, the government said at present, there is no reason to believe that the recent spike in Covid-19 cases in parts of these two states is due to these new variants of the virus.
Addressing a press conference on the Covid-19 situation in India, Dr VK Paul, member (Health) NITI Aayog said, “The two variants in Maharashtra were also detected in March and July (last year) there was no effect back then. But to say anything definitive about its correlation to (rise in) cases this time is not possible at present.”
He said these two variants were detected in labs of Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia (INSACOG).
Dr Paul also heads one of the government-appointed taskforce on Covid-19. He said so far 187 people in India have tested positive for the UK strain of SARS-CoV-2, while six people have been detected with the South Africa variant and one with the Brazil variant.
A study conducted by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) has found that the N440K strain of the virus is spreading a lot more in southern states.
Director of CCMB, Dr Rakesh Mishra in a press release said, “We now have emerging evidence that N440K (variant) is spreading a lot more in southern states. Closer surveillance is needed to understand its spread properly.”
Speaking about the new variants, Director General of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), Balram Bhargava said the new variants have been seen in other countries too and hence can’t be called Indian variants of the virus causing Covid-19.
The two variants N440K and E484K are among the 5,000 variants that have been circulating in India.
A study by CSIR-CCMB has found that in India alone, there are over 5,000 mutants of the virus causing Covid-19.
Experts say detecting these variants and understanding their potential to increase severity of infection or cause more infections needs better genome sequencing.
“The novel variants that are worrying many countries globally have been identified with only a low prevalence in India so far. These include the variants with immune-escape E484K mutation and the N501Y mutation with higher transmission rate. However, their apparent low prevalence might be simply because not enough sequencing has been done,” said Dr Rakesh Mishra, who is the corresponding author of the CSIR-CCMB study.
He said more Covid-19 virus genomes need to be sequenced across India to accurately identify emergence of these and other new variants.
So far, India has deposited only 6,400 genomes, which experts say is not full capacity utilisation.
“We need to have a focused approach towards monitoring the virus mutations. India has not been sequencing SARS-CoV-2 isolates to its full capacity and has deposited only about 6,400 genomes so far. The Indian government’s initiative of INSACOG, which aims to sequence 5 per cent of all positive cases, should soon address this,” said Dr Divya Tej Sowpati, a co-corresponding author of the study.
Official data show that so far, maximum samples (1,374) for genome sequencing have come from Maharashtra. This was followed by Telangana (987 samples), Delhi (811), Gujarat (655), Karnataka (464), and Andhra Pradesh (296).
Explaining the new variants, experts say owing to natural process of mutation, variants of the virus causing Covid-19 will keep emerging. The best way to control the potential damage is to exercise extensive genome surveillance and take measures to prevent spread of new variants as and when detected.
While vaccines may be helpful in this, practices like wearing masks, hand-hygiene and maintain physical distance is the most effective weapon against the virus, experts said.