India is witnessing the world’s strongest rise in coronavirus infections, with hospitals across the country running out of beds, oxygen and medicines.

Scientists are studying what caused the increase, and in particular whether a variant of the new coronavirus first detected in India is to blame.

The variant, called B.1.617, has been reported in 17 countries, which is causing worldwide concern.

These are the basics:

What is the Indian variant?

Variant B.1.617 contains two key mutations in the outer portion of the “peak” of the virus that binds to human cells, said Shahid Jameel, a senior Indian virologist.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the predominant lineage of B.1.617 was first identified in India last December, although an earlier version was seen in October 2020.

On Monday, the WHO classified as a “variant of concern,” which also includes variants first detected in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa.

Some initial studies showed that the Indian variant spreads more easily.

“There is a greater transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical manager on COVID-19, who added that she needs more information on the Indian variant to understand how much circulates in it.

Are there variants that cause the increase in cases?

It’s hard to say.

According to the WHO, laboratory studies with a limited sample size suggest an increase in potential transmissibility.

The picture is complicated because variant B.117, highly transmissible first detected in the UK, is behind peaks in some parts of India.

In New Delhi, cases of UK variants almost doubled during the second half of March, according to Sujeet Kumar Singh, director of the National Center for Disease Control. The Indian variant, however, is widely present in Maharashtra, the most affected state in the country, Singh said.

Leading U.S. disease modeler Chris Murray of the University of Washington said the large magnitude of infections in India in a short period of time suggests that an “escape variant” can outweigh any immunity. previous against natural infections in these populations.

“That makes it more likely to be B.1.617,” he said.

But Murray warned that gene sequencing data on coronavirus in India are scarce and that many cases are also being driven by variants in the UK and South Africa.

Carlo Federico Perno, head of Microbiology and Immunology Diagnosis at Bambino Gesù Hospital in Rome, said the Indian variant alone could not be the reason for India’s huge rise, which pointed to large meetings. social.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized for its handling of the pandemic and for allowing massive political rallies and religious festivities that have been super-broadcasting events in recent weeks.

Do vaccines stop it?

A bright point is that vaccines can be protective.

White House chief medical officer Anthony Fauci said preliminary evidence from laboratory studies suggests that Covaxin, a vaccine developed in India, appears to be able to neutralize the variant.

Public Health England said it was working with international partners, but that there is currently no evidence that the Indian variant and two related variants cause more serious illnesses or make vaccines currently deployed less effective.

“Our opinion is that this is a highly transmissible variant … [but] at the moment, our view is that it is less likely to escape vaccination than some of the other variants, ”English medical director Chris Whitty said on Monday.

“We have nothing to suggest that our diagnosis, our therapy and our vaccines will not work. This is important, “Van Kerkhove told the WHO.


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