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COVID-19 Outbreak Explained: What Is Delta Plus Variant Of Coronavirus And Why Is It A Variant Of Concern?

According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the cases of Delta Plus variant have been reported in 12 states so far; here is all you need to know about this new variant

COVID-19 Outbreak Explained: What Is Delta Plus Variant Of Coronavirus And Why Is It A Variant Of Concern?
Highlights
  • Experts are not sure if current vaccines are effective against Delta plus
  • It may or may not show resistance to existing treatment for COVID: Experts
  • 12 countries so far have detected Delta Plus strain

New Delhi: According to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), the Delta Plus, much like the Delta strain of coronavirus that has spread to 85 countries, is highly infectious and fast-spreading. In India, the new strain has been reported in 12 states, while globally, over 12 countries have detected Delta Plus cases. As the Delta Plus infection cases rise in the country, the government labelled the new strain as the ‘Variant of Concern’ on June 22. A variant of concern is characterised by increased infectivity, transmissibility or resistance to vaccines and treatment, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). NDTV speaks with experts to learn about the new strain, the risks involved and whether it can lead to a third coronavirus wave in the country.

Also Read: COVID-19 Virus Highly Adapted To Infect Human Cells: Study

Delta Plus Variant, A Mutation In The Delta Variant

The new Delta Plus variant is technically named B.1.617.2.1 or AY.1 and has been formed due to a mutation called K417N in the Delta or B.1.617.2 variant. According to experts, the mutation is in the spike protein of SARS-COV-2, which helps the virus enter and infect human cells.

How Dangerous Is The New Delta Plus Strain?

According to the Union Health Ministry, on the basis of learnings so far, the Delta Plus shows three characteristics- increased transmissibility, stronger binding to receptors of lung cells and potentially reduced monoclonal antibody response. However, Dr Randeep Guleria, Director of All India Institute Of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi said that currently, the number of cases of Delta plus variant is not enough to judge the significance of this variant in terms of it causing severe disease or high mortality or resistance to monoclonal antibodies. While talking about the risk of increased severity among cases due to the delta plus variant, Dr Anurag Agrawal, Director of CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology said,

By now we know all the cases that been found to be infected by the Delta Plus variant and we have not seen severe disease.

Dr Rahul Pandit, member, Maharashtra Covid Task Force, Director – Critical Care Fortis Hospitals Mumbai, however, has raised some concerns over the potential risks from the Delta Plus variant. He said,

My concerns are, is the infectivity different, is the virulence (or how fast the virus spreads) different, and how efficient are the present vaccines against the virus. We are yet to know about this with evidence. Symptoms wise, we know that it is causing more conjunctivitis, sore throat, prolonged taste loss and smell loss. The concern is also that if the receptor-binding site of the virus gets stronger which is where the mutation is happening then it may actually increase the virus’ binding to the lungs and that may cause a severe form of infection. But whether it is true or not is yet to be known.

Dr S.K. Sarin, Director, Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (ILBS), Delhi who is also a member of the national task force for COVID-19 said that symptomatology of the new virus needs to be studied. He said,

Like in case of Delta variant, people were taking longer to become negative and get discharged from the hospital. So longer virus persistence, delayed resolution, more severe disease and more lung injury, cytokine storm, diarrohea, are some of the risks. Also, we need to see whether the vaccine will be efficient. There might not be a severe infection, but the infection cannot be totally prevented.

Dr Sarin also said that it is highly likely that breakthrough infections increase because of the Delta Plus variant. He said,

All these viruses survive by immune escape- they will try to fool your body in order to multiply in your body. So, there is a constant fear that these viruses will breakthrough the immunity that you have of the immunity that the vaccine has provided. So, this will guide us towards the next step. Do we need a booster dose? And these trials need to be done very rapidly.

As far as the resistance to treatment is concerned, Dr Agarwal said that already very few patients in the country undergo antibody monoclonal treatment, so it is still too soon to say that it is completely resistant to the treatment.

Also Read: Vaccination Needs To Be Boosted Massively As The Contagious Delta Variant Of COVID-19 Continues To Spread, Says Epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding

Can Delta Plus Variant Lead To A Third Wave?

Whether the Delta Plus variant could trigger the third wave, Dr Agrawal, said that as of now the data is not enough to provide any evidence about the third wave. He said,

For every number, we must know the denominator. My institute has sequenced more than 3,500 samples from Maharashtra in the month of June covering samples from April and May. So, we can see that the strain is very much there but constitute less than on per cent of what has been sequenced in the given run. Even in the areas where the number is higher, it is still not very high.

However, Dr Agarwal emphasised that any sub-lineage of the Delta variant is a variant of concern and added that currently, it is important to worry about the second wave not ending than the onset of the third wave.
Dr Guleria underlined that even though the numbers are less, there is still a need to be vigilant. He said,

It is important to remain vigilant because we should not be lagging behind in terms of actions that we need to take, incase this variant becomes more infectious. If we go back to the second wave, there were suggestions that a new variant was emerging but by the time we got a hold of it, the variant had gone out of control, and we had a huge surge in the number of cases. To have more idea about the new variant, we need to observe it for few more days while being cautious.

Delta Plus: Prevention

The Union Health Ministry has recommended that areas, where Delta plus variant is found, should enhance their public health response by focusing on surveillance, enhanced testing, quick contact-tracing and priority vaccination. Speeding up the rate of vaccinations manifolds is also a strategy the experts urge central and state governments to follow. Dr Pandit said that there needs to be a multi-level approach. He said,

There needs micro containing and putting the clusters of infections into isolation zone and do increased testing. Track and treat the contact as well as the patient. Another thing that is extremely important now is to detect the more cases soon which means that even more genome sequencing needs to be done in the districts of concern.

Experts also said that the target is to stop the virus from mutating further which means that the virus should not get a host and thus the same precautions that were necessary from the earliest days of the pandemic remain crucial in the face of the Delta-plus variant. Hence, masking, handwashing and social distancing should be constantly practiced at the individual level.

Also Read: Third Wave Of COVID-19 Can Be Stopped If Preventive Measures Are Followed: Dr. V. K. Paul, NITI Aayog Member

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