Lack of testing risks mutant strains running rampant

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, India has established ten state-run laboratories in order to test samples to identify the presence of mutant strains. Despite the establishment of the laboratories, fewer than one percent of all samples have thus far been tested.

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Image credit: tumsasedgars / 123rf

India has only studied 11,064 of its samples according to the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. This amounts to a mere one percent of overall cases. Comparatively, the United Kingdom has sequenced eight percent of all infections, with 33 percent of those occurring in the last week being analysed according to the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium.

India’s state-run genomics laboratories were established in December following the detection of the mutant strain that was first detected in the UK in several passengers on inbound flights. However, since then the situation has progressed, with a new “double mutant” strain – one first detected in Maharashtra.

“The analysis of samples from Maharashtra has revealed that compared to December 2020, there has been an increase in the fraction of samples with the E484Q and L452R mutations,” said the Indian SARS-CoV-2 [severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2] Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) in a statement. “Such mutations confer immune escape and increased infectivity. These mutations have been found in about fifteen-twenty percent of samples and do not match any previously catalogued variants of concern (VOCs)”. 

Despite assurances from the Centre that the double-mutant strain has not played a role in the alarmingly rapid surge in cases in current weeks, evidence would suggest that the data is simply not available at this stage to confirm this is the case. Mutant strains have been noted so far as having higher rates of infection — though have been stated to be unlikely to be more lethal than the base strain of COVID-19.

Fears are abundant, however, that the surge in cases in India — now numbering at more than 100,000 new cases per day — could lead to the development of more mutant strains. These fears may well prove true, as every additional case is an additional chance for mutations to occur. 

Mutant strains of COVID-19 threaten to undo all the progress currently being made against the disease. Though most mutations are typically harmless, changes to the structure of the virus can make the disease better able to infect individuals, evading the host’s immune system, or even make the virus immune to vaccines currently in use. It is imperative that India gains a foothold against the current surge in cases or the increased chances of mutant strains developing could well undermine attempts to counter the virus worldwide.

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