A potentially dangerous form of the coronavirus discovered in India can spread more quickly. However, the country is lagging in conducting the required testing to properly monitor and understand it.
Based on preliminary research, the World Health Organization named the latest strain of the virus as a “variant of concern” on Monday, joining others that were first observed in the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Brazil but have since spread to other nations.
“We need a lot of detail about this virus variant,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead. “We need more focused sequencing completed and shared in India and elsewhere so we can figure out how much of this virus is circulating.”
Viruses continuously mutate, and the increase in infections here has created more chances for new versions to develop.
However, India was slow to begin the genetic monitoring needed to determine if such modifications were occurring and if they were making the coronavirus more contagious or lethal.
Such variations must also be checked to see whether the virus is able to escape the immune system, possibly leading to reinfections or making vaccines less safe. For the time being, the WHO emphasised that COVID-19 vaccines are successful in avoiding illness and death in people afflicted with the version.
Indian scientists claim that institutional barriers and the government’s unwillingness to exchange critical data have hampered their work. India is sequencing only 1% of its total cases, and not all of the samples are being submitted to the global coronavirus genome database.
When there isn’t enough sequencing, there may be gaps, and more concerning mutations can go undetected before they are common, according to Alina Chan, a postdoctoral researcher at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard who is monitoring global sequencing efforts.
“It has all the hallmarks of the virus that we should be concerned about,” said Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge.
The new version, which was first discovered in the coastal state of Maharashtra last year, has now been observed in samples from 19 of the 27 states surveyed. Meanwhile, a version discovered in the United Kingdom has deteriorated in India over the last 45 days.
Indian health officials have cautioned that attributing the country’s rise exclusively to such variants is premature. According to experts, the expansion was accelerated by government decisions not to halt religious conventions and packed election rallies.
Dr. Gagandeep Kang, a microorganism researcher at Christian Medical College in Vellore, southern India, said researchers need to find out whether the variant will affect people who have already had COVID-19 and, if so, if it can cause serious disease.
“I don’t understand why people don’t see this as significant,” she said.
India’s sequencing attempts have been haphazard. According to Chan, the nation uploads 0.49 sequences per 1,000 cases to GISAID, a global data sharing initiative. The United States, which has its own issues of genetic monitoring, uploads about 10 cases out of 1,000, while the United Kingdom uploads about 82 cases out of 1,000.
Late last year, Indian government agencies were directed to purchase domestic raw materials wherever possible, in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aim of making India “self-sufficient.” This proved unlikely because all sequencing materials were imported, resulting in more paperwork, according to Anurag Agarwal, director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology. He said the challenges were more severe between September and December, but his lab was able to find workarounds and begin sequencing.
Other labs did not, and scientists believe it should have been when India increased its sequencing, as cases were dwindling at the time.
Even though a federal initiative began on Jan. 18, putting together 10 laboratories capable of sequencing 7,500 samples every week, real testing did not begin until mid-February due to other logistical problems, according to Dr. Shahid Jameel, a virologist who chairs the consortium’s scientific advisory group.
By then, the number of cases in India had started to rise.
According to Jameel, India sequenced approximately 20,000 samples, but only 15,000 were officially announced because others were lacking critical details. Until late last month, he added, a third of the samples submitted by states were unusable.
And now, the raging epidemic has contaminated many of the staff in the laboratories.
“Many of our labs are dealing with this issue,” he said.
Pathi contributed reporting from Bengaluru, and Associated Press authors Danica Kirka in London and Chonchui Ngashangva in New Delhi also contributed.