The World Health Organization said Monday that the spread of the Covid-19 variant in India is facing an explosive outbreak. It appears to be more contagious and is listed as ’cause for concern’.
The United Nations Health Agency said the B.1.617 variant of Covid-19, which was first discovered in India last October, appears to be spreading more easily.
“There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility of the B.1.617,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s lead on Covid-19, told reporters.
“As such, we are classifying this as a variant of concern at the global level,” she said.
She also pointed to early studies “suggesting that there is some reduced neutralisation”, meaning that antibodies appeared to have less impact on the variant in small-sample lab studies.
The WHO insisted though that it was far too early to interpret this to mean that the variant might have more resistance to vaccine protections.
“Based on current data, the COVID-19 vaccines remain effective at preventing disease and death in people infected with this variant,” it said in a statement.
Van Kerkhove said more detailed information on the virus variant will be provided in the WHO weekly epidemiological update on Tuesday.
India has one of the worst outbreaks in the world, with nearly 370,000 new infections and 3,700 new deaths on Monday.
The devastating wave has overwhelmed India’s medical system. Experts say the official number of cases and deaths is much lower than the actual number.
For some time now, people have been concerned that B.1.617 (which contains several mutations and sublines with slightly different characteristics) may contribute to the shocking spread.
But so far, the World Health Organization still lists it only as a “worrying variable.”
Now it will be added to the list of three other variants of Covid-19, first discovered in the UK, Brazil and South Africa, and the WHO has classified it as “concerning”.
They are considered more dangerous than the original version of the virus because they are more easily spread, are more deadly, or are able to withstand certain vaccine protection measures.
Even if the vaccine’s efficacy can be reduced against certain variants of Covid-19, poking can still protect against serious illness and death.
And Van Kerkhove stressed that when it comes to the B.1.617 variant, for the time being “we don’t have anything to suggest that our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines don’t work”.
The WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan agreed, urging a “balanced approach.
“What we know now is that the vaccines work, the diagnostics work, the same treatments that are used for the regular virus work,” she told journalists.
“So there’s really no need to change any of those, and in fact… people should go ahead and get whatever vaccine is available to them and that they are eligible for.”
Experts highlight that the more the virus spreads, the bigger the risk it will find ideal conditions to mutate in concerning ways, stressing that everything must be done to rein in transmission.
“We will continue to see variants of concern around the world, and we must do everything that we can to really limit the spread,” Van Kerkhove said.