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WHO reclassifies India variant as being of global concern

The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that the triple-mutant B.1.617, known as the India variant, is now classified as a variant of global concern, reported MedicalBrief. It was previously labeled a “variant of interest” as more studies were needed to understand its significance.

The country recorded nearly 400,000 new  COVID-19 infections on 9 May, taking its total to more than 22m. Official figures record more than 350,000 new infections daily this month and nearly 250,000 total deaths. However, some experts say that the numbers are a vast undercount and estimate that India is on pace to suffer more than one million deaths by August

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19 , said the agency will provide more details in its weekly situation report on the pandemic but added that the variant, known as B.1.617, has been found in preliminary studies to spread more easily than the original virus and there is some evidence it may able to evade some of the protections provided by vaccines. The shots, however, are still considered effective.

“And as such we are classifying this as a variant of concern at the global level,” she said during a press conference. “Even though there is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies, we need much more information about this virus variant in this lineage in all of the sub lineages, so we need more sequencing, targeted sequencing to be done.

“What it means for anybody at home is any of the SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating can infect you and spread and everything in that sense is of concern,” she said Monday. “So, all of us at home, no matter where we live, no matter what virus is circulating, we need to make sure that we take all of the measures at hand to prevent ourselves from getting sick.”

A variant can be labeled as “of concern” if it has been shown to be more contagious, more deadly or more resistant to current vaccines and treatments, according to the WHO. The international organization has already designated three other variants with the classification: B.1.1.7, which was first detected in the U.K. and is the most prevalent variant currently circulating throughout the US; B.1.351, first detected in South Africa, and the P.1 variant, first detected in Brazil.

Nature reports that scientists are working to understand several coronavirus variants now circulating in India, where a ferocious second wave of COVID-19 has devastated the nation and caught authorities unawares.

Evidence is growing that one variant first detected in India might be more transmissible and slightly better at evading immunity than existing variants. Animal models also hint that it might be able to cause more severe disease. Researchers want to know if this variant and others might be driving the second wave and what kind of danger they pose globally.

In just a few weeks, the B.1.617 variant has become the dominant strain across India and has spread to about 40 nations, including the United Kingdom, Fiji and Singapore. Indications are that the variant is highly transmissible.

“Its prevalence has increased over other variants in much of India, suggesting that it has better ‘fitness’ over those variants,” says Shahid Jameel, a virologist at Ashoka University in Sonipat who chairs the scientific advisory group of the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genome Sequencing Consortia (INSACOG). Ravindra Gupta, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, UK, agrees that it is “highly likely to be more transmissible”.

Full report in Nature(Open access)

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