1. Are mutant strains of the Covid virus responsible for the massive upsurge of cases in the last month? It really depends on who you ask. This is a compilation of some of the leading national-experts we have interviewed on this theme on Left, Right and Centre. #COVID19India
2. Mutant strains or variations of existing strains have been linked to greater transmissibility of the virus. The UK strain brought that country's healthcare system to its knees - its critical to know just what it is that we are dealing with in India - transparency being key.
3. First - the ''new double mutant variant,'' identified by the government in a press note on March 24. Asked in a press conference whether this was responsible for the spurt of cases, this is what the DG of the Indian Council of Medical Research said:
4. Dr.Balram Bhargava: "In terms of double mutations, which lay people are getting confused with, they are not significant as far as India is concerned and their relationship with increased severity and transmissibility has not been established in the Indian context."
5. Fine ... so the new double mutant variant is not causing the spurt in cases. So what is? According to members of the Maharashtra Covid Task force, there is clear clinical evidence to suggest that we are dealing with a new, more transmissible strain:
6. Dr.Shashank Joshi (Member Maharashtra Covid Task Force): ''One thing is sure - that it is a rapidly transmissible strain. Whether it is the old strain, new strain, whether it is home-grow or international, we have no idea.''
7. Dr.Shashank Joshi (Member Maharashtra Covid Task Force): ''Clinically, the disease is going into clusters and families and is rapidly transmissible and at least the preliminary evidence suggests that it appears to be more rapidly transmissible.''
8. According to Dr.T.P Lahane, Director Medical Education and Research, Maharashtra, the new strain affects younger people.
9. Dr.Lahane: ''If you see the second wave of infections, there's a shift - the patients who are younger - they are 20 years to 40 years are affected more. Secondly, families are getting affected. This means that the rate of infection is high as compared to the last wave.''
10. This being the case, why haven't we been able to scientifically correlate the high number of cases in the last month to a specific, defined variant and then outline the specific efficacy of the existing vaccines on these mutations/strains/variations?
11. This is what Dr. Ram Vishwakarma, Chairman of the Covid Strategy Group of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) told us last night. CSIR is a lead agency in coordinating efforts to genetically sequence variants of Covid in India.
12. Dr. Vishwakarma: ''This is a very specialised effort and sequencing is not enough. You have sequences but it doesn't establish that it is causing faster disease or slower disease.''
13. Dr. Vishwakarma: ''Sequencing is only genomic data of the RNA sequence. But there, you need to have clinical evidence, corelation of that variant - single mutant or double mutant with the clinical symptom. So I would say that is a work in progress.''
14. This is an important explainer of the challenges of gene sequencing but raises key questions - when will India know what variant of the virus, if any, has caused the Maharashtra situation - won't this basic information give us a better idea of how to deal with this crisis?
15. In fact, there is already preliminary information from the Centre to suggest that the Maharashtra variants ''confer immune escape,'' in other words, have the ability to defeat our defences to deal with the infection. This is what the March 24 press-release said:
16. ''Analysis of samples from Maharashtra has revealed that compared to December 2020, there has been an increase in the fraction of samples with the E484Q and L452R mutations. Such mutations confer immune escape and increased infectivity.''
17: ''These mutations have been found in about 15-20% of samples and do not match any previously catalogued VOCs (Variants of Concern).''
18. So basically, in the one month since we have seen this potentially catastrophic rise in cases, particularly in Maharashtra, we have collected samples with mutations, identified clinical symptoms but are still not in a position to confirm anything in Maharashtra.
19. This is very different from Punjab where data shows that 326 of the 401 Covid-19 positive samples sent initially for genome sequencing were found to be of the UK variant. Up to 85 of the 95 samples subsequently sent were of the same type.
20. Updated (1/4/21): In his interview last night, Dr. Randeep Guleria, Director AIIMS and a Principal Member of the Covid Task force spelt out in lucid terms what we may be looking at with the "new strain."
21. Updated (1/4/21): Dr. Guleria- "Its likely that there is a variant which is causing the virus to be more infectious and this is part of what we tend to see."
22. (1/4/21): Dr. Guleria:
"This is exactly like what you said - what happened in the UK. There were in a better position in Sep or Oct and then they had this huge surge before Christmas and we are seeing this around Holi because the same sort of situation is repeating itself."
23. (1/4/21): Dr. Guleria: "And therefore its quite likely that what has led to this new surge is also the virus changing or mutating and we would just need to link it with epidemiological data but the fact that that data is not there does not mean that it is not happening."
24. (1/4/21): Dr. Guleria: "Its likely, logically, that if there is a sudden surge in cases, there is something which is happening which is making the virus more infectious."
27. Updated 12/4/21: 'Upto 90% of contacts of Covid cases turn positive themselves.' Overwhelming clinical evidence across India from numerous doctors indicates the drastically higher transmissibility of whatever strain is going around. #MaskUp
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