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New COVID-19 strain not yet in India

Flight ban and closed borders for tourists and travelers with coronavirus covid-19. Airplane and flag of United Kingdom on a white background. Coronavirus pandemic. Mutant COVID-19 strain travel restrictions illustration.. New COVID-19 strain.
Image credit: Tatiana Chekryzhova / 123rf

The new variant of COVID-19 identified in the United Kingdom recently is not present in India. However, the Union Government is in talks with UK experts to discuss the new COVID-19 strain due to concerns that it appears to be a “super spreader.”

“We have not detected this mutation,” said Dr Vinod K. Paul, a member of government think tank Niti Aayog. “Our own deep assessment is that we do not need to panic. We have to be more vigilant but that is also because we still are fighting the pandemic.” His calls to avoid panic echo those made by Union Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan, who told a press briefing earlier this week “the government is alert.” 

As explained by The British Medical Journal, the mutant COVID-19 strain “is defined by a set of seventeen changes or mutations. One of the most significant is an N501Y mutation in the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to the human ACE2 receptor. Changes in this part of spike protein may, in theory, result in the virus becoming more infectious and spreading more easily between people.”

Paul noted that “such mutations are common in viruses but changes in this part of the spike protein may result in the virus becoming more infectious (ability to enter a human cell) and spreading more easily between people. Therefore, we need to practise caution and be more vigilant.”

While the new COVID-19 strain is considered to be more transmissible than other strains, there is some emerging consensus that it does not affect the severity of cases nor does adversely affect the citizenry in terms of deaths. In addition, the discovery of the new COVID-19 strain does not affect plans for vaccinations nor does it change the current treatment protocols for COVID-19. “In any week of January, we can be in a position to give [a] first COVID vaccine shot to the people of India,” Vardhan said. 

What is affected is travel. Flights to India from the UK are suspended until December 31st. Those who arrived in India from the UK between November 25th and December 23rd are required to undergo RT-PCR testing. In addition, though the virus is not presently believed to be circulating in India, state governments are being asked to keep watch on those who travelled internationally in recent weeks and genome sequencing of all samples positive for the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is being undertaken by laboratories.

In Rajasthan, the state government is establishing labs for this purpose. One such facility is the Sawai Man Singh Medical College in Jaipur, expected to begin operations in January. 

“Our sequencing lab will become functional soon,” said the college’s principal Dr Sudhir Bhandari. “In due course of time, we are sending samples to a lab in Delhi to find out if there is any mutation in the virus. So far we have sent 100 samples and no mutation has been reported in the dominant strain of the virus.” 

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