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India is currently battling a second wave of coronavirus infections and amidst increasing cases and limited supply of oxygen and vaccines wreaking havoc in the country, attention has turned towards what might have led to this deadly surge, such as indigenous variants. 

The Indian variant with two worrying mutations is currently being studied to ascertain its cause and effect on the pandemic situation in the country right now. 

What is the India variant?

Viruses mutate all the time, producing different versions or variants of themselves. This variant – officially known as B.1.617 – was first detected in India in October. B.1.617 has 13 mutations that result in amino acid changes. It has been described as a ‘double mutant’. This term is used to refer to two main mutations E484Q and L452R, in spike proteins.

First, B.1.617 has a mutation (L452R) that’s also present in the dominant strain in California. Second, B.1.617 has a similar mutation (E484Q) as the one present in the variants first detected in South Africa and Brazil (that mutation is called E484K). So in a nutshell, B.1.617 has two “famous” mutations. But it has 11 other ones as well. The spike protein is the part of the virus that it uses to penetrate human cells. Double mutation in key areas of the virus’s spike protein might increase risks and allow the virus to escape the immune system. 

The WHO categorizes the Indian variant as a “Variant of Interest.” That means the variant is being monitored, but it is not of major concern for the time being. As things stand, there is still not enough evidence to determine any causal relationship with India’s deadly second wave, and Public Health England does not currently list the variant as a “variant of concern” – a term used to describe the UK, Brazilian and South African variants. It’s too early to say that the rise in Covid-19 cases is because of this double mutant variant of the virus. 


How is it different from previous mutant viruses?

As mentioned above, the new mutation carries the genetic code from two other mutations, E484Q and L452R mutations, which were already in circulation globally. While both the mutations, traced across different variants are characteristic for their high infectivity and transmission rates, this is the first time they have merged together, making it many times more infectious.

Put in simpler terms, the double mutation has two different spike protein markers related to coronavirus. The spike protein helps the virus attach itself to the human cells and then invade the organs. Now, variants of the strain alter the very structure of the spike protein, which makes it more efficient in attaching with the human host cells and multiplying faster, causing scarier infection bout.

Even though this double variant has the potential of causing greater damage, most patients so far have shown better results with home isolation. Mutations such as L452R that help with binding don’t necessarily result in more severe disease or make the virus more deadly. 

The variant is more infectious and can infect many people together because it spreads faster in a group or within a family. However, no need for hospitalization has been seen so far in most cases.


Are vaccines effective against this double-variant?

Preliminary results of a study have shown that the Covishield vaccine protects against the B.1.617 variant of coronavirus. India’s indigenous vaccine Covaxin successfully neutralized the UK, Brazil and South African variants in laboratory tests, but results are not yet available from the population or for the B.1.617 variant.