The Centre said on Tuesday that two new coronavirus strains have been detected in three states — Maharashtra, Kerala and Telangana — but there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the recent surge being reported by the first two states is linked to these variants. This is in addition to the three other strains — from the UK, South Africa and Brazil — reported earlier.
What did Dr VK Paul say?
Addressing a press conference on the Covid-19 situation in India, Dr VK Paul, Member (Health) NITI Aayog said, "The two variants in Maharashtra were also detected in March and July (last year)...there was no effect back then. But to say anything definitive about its correlation to (rise in) cases this time is not possible at present.
He said these two variants were detected in labs of Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia (INSACOG).
Dr Paul also heads one of the government-appointed taskforces on Covid-19. He said so far 187 people in India have tested positive for the UK strain of SARS-CoV-2, while six people have been detected with the South Africa variant and one with the Brazil variant.
According to a study conducted by the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), an N440K strain of the virus is spreading a lot more in southern states.
Director of CCMB, Dr Rakesh Mishra in a press release said, "We now have emerging evidence that N440K (variant) is spreading a lot more in southern states. Closer surveillance is needed to understand its spread properly."
What are the two new variants?
The two variants -- N440K and E484K -- are among the 5,000 variants that have been circulating in India.
A study by CSIR-CCMB has found that in India alone, there are over 5,000 mutants of the virus causing Covid-19.
Experts say detecting these variants and understanding their potential to increase the severity of infection or cause more infections needs better genome sequencing.
"The novel variants that are worrying many countries globally have been identified with only a low prevalence in India so far. These include the variants with immune-escape E484K mutation and the N501Y mutation with a higher transmission rate. However, their apparent low prevalence might be simply because not enough sequencing has been done," said Dr Rakesh Mishra, who is the corresponding author of the CSIR-CCMB study.
He said more Covid-19 virus genomes need to be sequenced across India to accurately identify the emergence of these and other new variants.
So far, India has deposited only 6,400 genomes, which experts say is not full capacity utilisation.
"We need to have a focused approach towards monitoring the virus mutations. India has not been sequencing SARS-CoV-2 isolates to their full capacity and has deposited only about 6,400 genomes so far. The Indian government's initiative of INSACOG, which aims to sequence 5 per cent of all positive cases, should soon address this," said Dr Divya Tej Sowpati, a co-corresponding author of the study.
Official data show that so far, maximum samples (1,374) for genome sequencing have come from Maharashtra. This was followed by Telangana (987 samples), Delhi (811), Gujarat (655), Karnataka (464), and Andhra Pradesh (296).