Ever since the pandemic set foot in the world, researchers have been tracking everything about it. How it behaves, how it spreads, how it impacts humans, and how it changes or mutates. While it is genuine to have concerns over the emerging new virus variants, it is important to understand how the new variants might affect the transmission, severity, symptoms, testing, treatment, and vaccine efficacy.
Here, we’ve tried answering most questions that might be popping up in your thoughts after hearing about new variants entering or emerging in India.
Q.1. What is a new virus variant? Where did this new variant come from?
A new variant of the virus is nothing but a slightly different virus as compared to the currently prevalent one, which emerges through changes (or mutations) in the virus’s genes.
The emergence of new virus variants is a completely natural process, it is neither unnatural nor unexpected. Viruses, including the coronavirus, constantly change over time. While some virus variants may emerge and disappear, some variants might persist after emergence.
Q.2. What is mutation and how do viruses mutate?
Mutations simply mean changes in the genetic material.
Viruses undergo mutations constantly, especially the ones having RNA as genetic material. All viruses contain either RNA or DNA as their genetic material which is protected with a covering of protein. When the virus enters your body, it attaches itself to one of your cells and starts replicating. Sometimes, while replicating, their genetic material undergoes a change. This is called a mutation. Usually, these mutations are minor and don’t really impact the virus’s ability. They can even weaken the virus. But, sometimes, the mutation may make it easier for the virus to replicate and spread.
Point to note: Chances of mutations and new variants emerging increase with an increase in the number of people being infected. The mantra still remains the same – Break the chain, to slow down the emergence of new variants.
Q.3. Are these new variants specific to India?
No, the two variants of the coronavirus (being referred as new Indian variants), named N440K and E484K, have been detected in other countries. In fact, the E484K variant was visible in India during March-July 2020 as well.
As already mentioned, there are multiple variants circulating around the world. The major variants that have now spread to many countries, including India are the United Kingdom (UK) variant, the Brazil variant and the South African variant.
Q.4. Should I be bothered about the new variant?
To some extent, yes. Some of the new variants (like N440K) are found to have increased infectivity than the parent coronavirus, thus can lead to more rapid and efficient transmission. Also, a few variants (like E484K) can escape through the immune system cells (immune system can no longer be able to identify and eliminate the virus).
Q.5. Do the new variants cause more severe infections?
As per currently available evidence, there is no increase in disease severity as indicated through the length of hospitalization and 28-day case fatality. However, since these variants spread more easily, more people may get infected with them, including elderly people or people having comorbidities who are vulnerable to developing severe COVID-19 disease[2,3].
Q.6. Are the new variants responsible for the recent surge in COVID cases?
At the moment, the mutant strain has not been found to be causing the resurgence of cases being noticed in some of the Indian states, as per the Union Health Ministry. Currently, the surge is solely COVID inappropriate behavior among people, public gatherings of masses, and reduction in testing, tracking and tracing.
Q.7. Will the COVID-19 RT-PCR testing be reliable for the new COVID variant?
The effect of the new COVID variants on testing is not anticipated to be significant as yet. Though many of the new variants have been observed to affect the S gene, most of the PCR tests lookout for multiple gene targets in the sample and hence will be able to pick up the infection. Do keep in mind that the protocol of testing, isolating, and treating still remains the same for all the currently circulating variants of SARS-CoV-2.
While the currently available RT-PCR tests help detect whether the person is infected with COVID-19 or not, they cannot detect the variant causing the disease. Identification of variants can be done through genome sequencing.
Q.8. What is genome sequencing that is used to detect new viral strains?
New variants are tracked through genome sequencing where the virus’s genetic material is analyzed to look for any notable changes or mutations. Tracking mutations helps understand how the virus is spreading and evolving, allowing it to tackle future spread by taking appropriate precautions immediately. Currently, 10 genome sequencing laboratories in India regularly monitor the genomic variations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Q.9. Can you get re-infected with the new variants if you’ve recovered for some other variant of COVID-19?
People who have recovered from COVID-19 usually have some temporary protection against a re-infection. This happens because they develop antibodies against the virus. But, in the words of Dr. Randeep Gulleria, many of the current variants have developed an immune escape mechanism that may allow them to evade the immunity gained by people through previous infections. The best ways to stay protected remain the same – wearing masks, avoiding gatherings, sanitizing hands and surfaces frequently, and maintaining social distancing.
Q.10. Will the vaccines work against the new variants?
Broadly speaking, yes. Vaccines help develop a broad immune response which can provide protection against many variants. Even in the small possibility if the vaccine efficacy experiences a slight reduction, it should still be able to reduce chances of severe infections in the takers. However, vaccine developers and experts are continuously studying the effect of the vaccine on the variants so that vaccines can be updated as required.
Make sure to get vaccinated when you get a chance.
Q.11. How can you stay protected from these variants?
The guidelines remain the same for all the variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The experts are constantly emphasizing that the best and the most effective way to ensure protection against all variants of SARS-CoV-2 virus is by following COVID appropriate behavior. This includes:
– wearing a mask
– staying at least 6 feet apart from people
– disinfecting surfaces
– sanitizing hands
– avoiding social gatherings or maintaining ventilation in such spaces
– getting vaccinated when your turn comes
Remember to follow all the COVID- appropriate precautions even after getting vaccinated.
(The article is reviewed by Dr. Swati Mishra, Medical Editor)
2. Science Brief: Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/more/science-and-research/scientific-brief-emerging-variants.html
3. Covid-19 News: Herd Immunity In India Is A Myth, Says AIIMS Director Dr Randeep Guleria. NDTV. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgXu5PoihKw
4. PIB India. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keuO81DUXrM
5. SARS-CoV2 Variants. WHO. Available at: https://www.who.int/csr/don/31-december-2020-sars-cov2-variants/en/#:~:text=Most%20PCR%20assays%20in%20use,antigen%2Dbased%20lateral%20flow%20devices
6. Genomic Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 In India Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG). MoHFW. https://www.mohfw.gov.in/pdf/IndianSARSCoV2PDFGenomicsConsortiumGuidanceDocument.pdf
7. Frequently Asked Questions New Variant of SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa. Health Department of Republic of South Africa. https://www.nicd.ac.za/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/New-Variant-of-SARS-CoV-2_Frequently-Asked-Questions_v10_18-January-2021.pdf
8. Episode #20 – COVID-19 – Variants & Vaccines. WHO. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/media-resources/science-in-5/episode-20—covid-19—variants-vaccines?gclid=Cj0KCQiAj9iBBhCJARIsAE9qRtBSe5Uhovo96lGwgwXfDSNIypZRB8-8CJ5TX9bc7NMbYducK-QRfnUaAgLFEALw_wcB