- The mutant was first identified in UK in September
- Mutant virus may be present in many nations: WHO Chief Scientist
- It’s effect on vaccine efficacy is unlikely: Dr Swaminathan
New Delhi: Just when the world was starting to get hopeful about vaccine rollout to end COVID-19 pandemic, a far more contagious mutation of the novel coronavirus has been found. The new strain of the SARS-CoV-2, which is the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was detected in The United Kingdom in September and has spread rapidly among people there. The same the strain has been reported in Italy, Netherlands, Australia and Denmark as well. According to the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, because the new virus strain is more transmissible than the existing strain, the disease is becoming difficult of manage. The new strain called N501Y which alters the most important part of the spike protein of the virus has now resulted in a travel ban from and to the UK by at least 40 countries including India. While the researchers study the mutation and provide details about it, NDTV spoke to Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO) to learn about the potential impact of the mutated virus on the fight against the outbreak.
NDTV: Will the approved COVID-19 vaccines be effective against the new strain of mutated coronavirus?
Dr Swaminathan: Everybody today is concerned about the vaccine efficacy with regards to the new virus mutation. But it is too early to conclude if it will be efficient or not. What we do know is that the number of mutations, the changes that have occurred in this particular variant, is larger than normal. There are about 22-23 mutations which have occurred and several of them are in the spike protein region which governs the entry of the virus in the body. This protein is being targeted by most of the developers while making vaccines, at least in the first set of candidates that are coming out. The spike protein itself which is the part of the vaccine would generally elicit quite a broad immune response in both neutralising antibodies and a cell-mediated immune response and it would be unlikely that a couple of mutations in the protein would actually change the response of the immune system to the vaccine. There are investigations going on that are taking this virus in culture, adding serum either from recovered patients called convalescent serum or serum collected from vaccine recipients to see if the virus can be nuetralised by the antibodies that these people have. These experiments are going to take a couple of weeks for us to get results and would definitively tell us the answer to this question.
NDTV: Is it possible that the travel ban that is in place right now could last for several months?
Dr Swaminathan: We are going to learn more about the strain in the coming days and weeks. So the question we are more interested in is if the new variant is more transmissible. The other important question is, does it result in worse clinical outcomes or causes more severe clinical diseases. The third question is, does it have an impact either on treatment or vaccines. As of now, we only have a hint about the first question.
The UK scientists who have done a lot of modelling around this have shown explosive growth of this variant in the Southeast parts of the UK over the last few weeks suggests that it is more transmissible. But there have been mutations in the past which have also become the dominant variant going forward. So, it may be just another variant that has an advantage in spreading and therefore become a dominant strain. Therefore, we have to wait for those.
As far as travel is concerned, UK is one of those countries that are doing a lot of whole-genome sequencing (the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s genome at a single time which is one of the important factors in developing a vaccine). The UK is, therefore, able to track the mutation very closely in real-time. I suspect that as more countries look at their genome sequencing data and we encourage countries to do much more sequencing than being done now, then many more countries might find that this variant or related variants might already be in the country. Several European countries have already reported the presence of this variant. Since it has been in circulation since September, it is likely to have spread internationally. I think the more we look, the more we will find.
The other important point here is that whether it is this variant or another variant, the public health measures are the same. It is really important that all countries now put in place the measure to control this virus and bring down transmission to as low level as possible. Those measures are testing, contact tracing and quarantining and the isolation of the positive cases.
NDTV: How much time would it take for countries sequencing to know about the strain of the variant of the virus?
Dr Swaminathan: It does not take long at all. So, the countries that have capacity like India should conduct whole genome sequencing more frequently. India has laboratories in public and private sectors that are doing it. In fact, India is contributing a lot of sequences to the global database called Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Database (GISAID), which currently has about 3 lakh genome sequences. But many countries across the world are under-represented on this database. A large proportion of the sequences have come from North America and Europe. The more the countries contribute to GISAID, the better. It is because this allows scientific collaborations globally to work on looking at how the virus is evolving and changing over a period of time and many countries have used sequencing to understand where the infection is and when it entered their country. It also helps answer questions like where the clusters of infected cases are, what are the dominant strains and how the infection is spreading in the country. While there is already a global database, countries should also have a national database where all the agencies come together and collaborate to track how the virus is behaving in the country.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swasth India campaign is an extension of the five-year-old Banega Swachh India initiative helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. It aims to spread awareness about critical health issues facing the country. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign highlights the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children to prevent maternal and child mortality, fight malnutrition, stunting, wasting, anaemia and disease prevention through vaccines. Importance of programmes like Public Distribution System (PDS), Mid-day Meal Scheme, POSHAN Abhiyan and the role of Aganwadis and ASHA workers are also covered. Only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and become a Swasth or healthy India. The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene.