B.1.617: A continued global threat

Confirmed cases of COVID-19 concept. a covid-19 blood test tube with result of positive on yellow background the X has clipping path and can be removed. COVID-19 testing concept. Antibody tests concept. Image credit: 罗 宏志 / 123rf. COVID-19 cases now number at one million: concept. Testing illustration. Symptomatic COVID-19 illustration. Cases of COVID-19 in India concept. COVID-19 clusters concept.. new covid-19 variant mutant strain long covid. COVID-19 cases concept. Even after recovery from COVID-19, long-COVID symptoms may persist. Image credit: 罗 宏志 / 123rf. B.1.617 concept.
Image credit: 罗 宏志 / 123rf

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has criticised usage of the term ‘Indian variant’ to describe B.1.617, a variant of COVID-19 first identified in Maharashtra last year. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently notified B.1.617 as a “variant of global concern” – the same designation given to COVID-19 variants first identified in Brazil, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. The change in classification means that B.1.617, as BBC News notes, “shows evidence of fulfilling at least one of several criteria, including easy transmission, more severe illness, reduced neutralisation by antibodies or reduced effectiveness of treatment and vaccines.”

There is ample speculation that the emergence of B.1.617 is fuelling India’s bitter second wave, which has overwhelmed its health system and crematoriums and even led to scenes of human remains floating in the Rivers Ganga and Yamuna. The Union Government, for its part, has said there is evidence of the emergence of B.1.617 being tied to the second wave, though such a link has yet to be “fully established.” 

B.1.617 is now present in 44 countries in what is regarded as a potential threat to the international effort to combat COVID-19. As CNN reports

“The B.1.617 variant has also spread far beyond India’s borders. The United Kingdom — which is slated to make its “single biggest step” towards normality by dropping most pandemic restrictions next Monday — has reported the largest number of cases of the strain outside of India, the WHO said. When asked about the variant, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said Monday that “we don’t know if this is going to cause significant problems in the autumn.” Meanwhile, in the United States — where B.1.617 is also present — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is still classifying it as a “variant of interest,” but noted that this classification could escalate or deescalate based on scientific evidence.”

But to refer to B.1.617 as the ‘Indian variant’ is something the Union Health Ministry has taken umbrage with. “Several media reports have covered the news of [the]…WHO classifying B.1.617 as [a] variant of global concern,” it said in a statement. “Some of these reports have termed the B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus as an Indian Variant. These media reports are without any basis, and unfounded.” 

In terms of the variant itself, irrespective of how it is characterised, the dangers are patent and more research is needed. “Even though there is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies, we need much more information about this virus variant in this lineage in all of the sub lineages, so we need more sequencing, targeted sequencing to be done,” said WHO technical lead for COVID-19 Maria Van Kerkhove. 

What is also in the public eye is the conduct of the Indian government. As CNN noted, “the WHO assessment will come as no surprise to critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who have come under increasing fire after holding multiple election rallies drawing thousands and giving the go-ahead for the largest religious pilgrimage on Earth last month — even as experts warned it could cause a deadly surge. 

“The WHO said that the “exact contributions of each of these factors on increased transmission in India are not well understood.” Meanwhile, India’s surge has devastated major cities, with hospitals running out of oxygen and medicine.”

To counter the pandemic, continued adherence to the safety protocols advised such as physical distancing and the wearing of face coverings is imperative. The alternative are continued surges, engendering scenes of untold suffering and a healthcare system at its breaking point. 

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