Scientists sound alarm over 'triple-mutant' strain in India

'Bengal strain' might be more infective and may be capable of escaping a person’s immune surveillance, say experts


News Desk April 23, 2021
A patient with breathing problems is seen inside a car while waiting to enter a Covid-19 hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), in Ahmedabad, India, April 22, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

India, which is already battling the worst Covid-19 crisis since the beginning of pandemic, has identified "triple-mutant" strain in one of its states, raising new fears about the ability of health services to cope.

The virus that is doing rounds in Indian state of Bengal is increasingly being found to be an indigenous triple-mutation (B.1.618), only the second one identified from India after the double mutant type (B.1.617) reported last month, according to The Times of India.

Scientist said that the "Bengal strain" might be more infective and may be capable of escaping a person’s immune surveillance even if that person was earlier exposed to a virus without this mutation, and even if vaccinated.

Read: Oxygen leak kills 22 in Indian hospital as coronavirus infections mount

However, There has been no research yet to either corroborate or dismiss the fears.

India marked a grim milestone in the Covid-19 pandemic on Thursday, reporting 314,835 new daily cases, the highest one-day tally anywhere.

“The proportion of B.1.618 has been growing significantly in recent months in Bengal,” said Vinod Scaria, who researches genome mutations at the CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) on Twitter, adding, “along with B.1.617 it forms a major lineage in West Bengal”.

Hospitals across northern and western India including the capital, New Delhi, have issued notices to say they have only a few hours of medical oxygen required to keep Covid-19 patients alive.

More than two-thirds of hospitals had no vacant beds, according to the Delhi government's online data base and doctors advised patients to stay at home.

"The situation is very critical," Dr Kirit Gadhvi, president of the Medical Association in the western city of Ahmedabad, told Reuters.

"Patients are struggling to get beds in Covid-19 hospitals. There is especially acute shortage of oxygen."

Krutika Kuppalli, assistant professor at the Division of Infectious Diseases, Medical University of South Carolina in the United States, said on Twitter the crisis was leading to a collapse of the healthcare system.

'India may have to fight Covid-19 at least for 2-3 years'

The sudden surge has prompted health experts in India to say that the country may have to prepare itself for a long haul of Covid-19 — at least for the next 2-3 years — unless oral drugs that can effectively kill the virus are available over the counter.

"The future remains a mystery. Covid-19 may continue for long if the strains remain infectious, and hit us hard multiple times in the years to come, or it may disappear if the virus mutates to a very docile one similar to flu," Neha Gupta, infectious diseases specialist at the Medanta - The Medicity, told IANS.

"The ideal situation will be oral drugs which can effectively kill the virus and are safe to use on an OPD basis. Till then, mask, hand hygiene and social distancing are of paramount importance for us and must remain a part of our lives for years to come," she elaborated.

India has launched a vaccination drive but only a tiny fraction of the population has had the shots.

Authorities have announced that vaccines will be available to anyone over the age of 18 from May 1 but India won't have enough shots for the 600 million people who will become eligible, experts say.

Health experts said India had let its guard down when the virus seemed to be under control during the winter, when new daily cases were about 10,000, and it lifted restrictions to allow big gatherings.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government ordered an extensive lockdown last year, in the early stages of the pandemic, but has been wary of the economic costs of tough restrictions.

Read more: Twitter becomes platform of hope amid the despair of India's Covid crisis

In recent weeks, the government has come in for criticism for holding packed political rallies for local elections and allowing a religious festival at which millions gathered.

This week, Modi urged state governments to use lockdowns as a last resort. He asked people to stay indoors and said the government was working to increase the supply of oxygen and vaccines.

Experts say new virus variants, in particular a "double mutant" variant that originated in India are largely responsible for the new spikes in cases.

"The double mutant ... is considerably more infectious than the older strain of virus," said Gautam I Menon, a professor at Ashoka University.

Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Center for Global Health and Science Security at Georgetown University said the situation in India was "heartbreaking and awful".

"It's the result of a complex mix of bad policy decisions, bad advice to justify those decisions, global and domestic politics, and a host of other complex variables," she said on Twitter.

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