Enough evidence has emerged to support the view that the second wave, or the new surge in coronavirus infections, has been helped along by this new variant, the B.1.617. The so-called Indian variant, the result of a double mutation, has been found in a significant number of samples that were sent up for genome sequencing. While much more work needs to be done in this area, there is fairly robust evidence that the variant is a factor behind the spike in several states.
Of course, much more sequencing needs to be done to conclusively establish whether this variant is fronting the second wave. There is also data to support the view that the recent surge is a result of the spread of the UK variant (B.1.1.7). Our efforts at genome sequencing and analysis have covered only some 15,000 plus samples so far, much too little to reach firm conclusions about what exactly is behind the spread in different areas of the country.
The bad news is that the variants appear to spread more quickly and affect those living in proximity with each other. The good news is that there is nothing to suggest they are more lethal; in fact, many of the cases are asymptomatic, which, of course, has a flip side, in so far as it can result in people spreading it unknowingly as well. The entry of genomic variants is an evolutionary phenomenon, with the virus ordering the production of proteins needed to secure its survival. Reports of triple mutant, a so-called Bengal strain, and the speculation that this could spread even more quickly by escaping immunity barriers, are worrying. How variants will evolve and how they will impact us is a matter of speculation, but it is possible that as times go by, they will become more benign even as they become more transmittable.
The big question, of course, is the implication of the growth of variants for the vaccination programme. As things stand, there is some evidence that two vaccines in India, Covaxin and Covishield, have a degree of efficacy against the double variant. Once again, more work needs to be done on this, but the recent data shows that it is only a very tiny fraction of people have contracted COVID-19 after receiving one or both doses of the vaccine.
Add to this the fact, that it is proven that the vaccines are effective in preventing death and severe cases of infection, and the case for administering them to everyone becomes strong. The shortage in vaccines that the country is witnessing must be quickly overcome. Both makers, the Serum Institute of India and Bharat Biotech, have ramped up their production facilities, the impact of which will be visible shortly. But this may not be enough if the object is to vaccinate everyone above 18 as quickly as possible – a necessity given the spread of the variants.