Hyderabad: The Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), on 29 December, said that the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that causes the new COVID-19 strain, B.1.1.7, is believed to be 71 per cent more transmissible than the other variants. First reported in the UK in September 2020, this variant makes up for 60 per cent of all coronavirus infections there.
Many countries, including India, have temporarily halted flights from the UK. By tracing and testing 33,000 passengers who have flown into India from the UK, India has confirmed the presence of this new variant in the country.
CSIR-CCMB is one of the 10 research institutes in India that are tracing the new variant here. “We have to expedite the viral genome sequencing efforts and check for the presence of the new variant in India. We have used both the traditional Sanger sequencing method as well as the modern Next-Gen Sequencing tools,” said Dr. Divya Tej Sowpati who leads the coronavirus genome sequencing efforts at CCMB, Hyderabad.
The new variant shows 17 mutations in its genetic material. Of these, eight affect its Spike protein which expresses on its outer surface and binds to the ACE receptors in the host cells. One of the mutations is believed to enhance the binding between the virus and the receptors thus facilitating its entry into the host cells.
The mutations have, however, not worsened the symptoms or the disease outcomes. They are also not an impediment to vaccine development. The testing protocol also remains the same. The only problem is that the new variant spreads more easily than the others.
“The measures to avoid infection still remain the same. Using masks when in the presence of others, avoiding crowded places, and maintaining physical distance are the most effective and feasible ways to avoid contracting the virus, including the new variant,” said Dr. Rakesh Mishra, the director of CCMB.
He added, “It is now important to launch extensive genome surveillance of the virus to assess the extent of the spread of the new virus. We should also keep an eye on other variants that might emerge independently as India houses the second-largest population infected with this virus at present.”