Covid-19: How Concerning is India’s ‘Double-Mutant’ Variant?

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  • Bloomberg Quicktake: Now published this video item, entitled “Covid-19: How Concerning is India’s ‘Double-Mutant’ Variant?” – below is their description.

    As coronavirus infections surge by more than 300,000 cases for 15 straight days, pushing India’s tally past 21 million, the country’s limited ability to track new mutations emerging from its outbreak is a growing concern for scientists. 

    The good news is that the vaccines work against a new virus strain circulating in India that’s spread to several other countries.

    The bad news is it won’t be only the new version of the pathogen to emerge from an outbreak of this scale, underscoring the urgency of mapping other possible variants that may be currently racing through India’s tightly-packed population of 1.4 billion people.

    Mutations occur when the virus replicates, and India’s unprecedented surge is driving new cases to global records, even as richer economies like the U.S. and Israel re-open quickly. Fearing an influx of infections and mindful of B.1.617, Singapore, the U.K. and Tanzania are among countries that have curbed travel to and from India.

    The India strain has been called a double mutant because of the presence of two changes in the virus’s genome, called E484Q and L452R. Both affect a portion of the spike protein, called the receptor binding domain, that’s key to the virus entering cells.

    Some researchers estimate that the B.1.617 variant is as transmissible as the B.1.1.7 variant that emerged in the U.K., thought to be as much as 70% more transmissible than earlier versions of the virus.

    Yet initial analyses indicate that the India version, now classified a variant of interest by the World Health Organization, poses a limited threat and doesn’t appear to be more dangerous.

    Covaxin, the inactivated-virus vaccine being made by India’s Bharat Biotech International Ltd., and AstraZeneca Plc’s vaccine, called Covishield in India, are effective against the strain in preventing serious illness, said Rakesh Mishra, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, one of the labs analyzing virus samples. Data is still being gathered about the response to Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, Mishra said, but it’s likely to be effective.

    BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said he was confident the mRNA shot it’s making with partner Pfizer Inc. would work against the India mutant though testing is still ongoing. “The Indian variant has the same mutation that we’ve already investigated and against which our vaccine was also effective,” he said last week.

    Singapore has also seen vaccines hold up well to prevent serious illness, said Kenneth Mak, director of medical services in city-state’s health ministry. But “vaccination does not prevent you from getting infected 100%,” he said in a Tuesday briefing.

    Ravindra Gupta’s team at the University of Cambridge recently studied the two mutations that appear on the receptor binding domain of the India variant’s spike protein. The team tested viruses made to simulate the variant against serum from nine people who had already received a single dose of the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine.

    “We wanted to know whether this double mutant really is a double whammy,” said Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at Cambridge’s Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases. What they found was that while each of the mutations could partly evade neutralizing antibodies, the two mutations didn’t combine to create an even greater ability to evade immune protection.

    “They don’t combine to make a super mutant,” Gupta said. “It kind of debunks this view that this double mutant is doubly evading neutralizing antibodies.”

    While the findings ease concerns around B.1.617, researchers are turning to the next set of variants as India’s outbreak continues to rage. Genomic surveillance can provide crucial information on the new forms of this shape-shifting virus — critical in preventing subsequent waves and developing the next generation of vaccines.

    “Mass surveillance of genome sequencing, just keep mapping out the virus from positive Covid samples across the country, that’s the only way you can map the next set of mutants,” says Bloomberg reporter Bhuma Shrivastava.

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