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‘Indian Strain’ of Coronavirus Found in 17 Countries, Says WHO

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The ‘Indian strain’ of the coronavirus, also known as B.1.617 or a ‘double mutant’, has been found in at least 17 countries, the WHO has said, as the world grapples to contain the surge in the Covid-19 cases with 5.7 million infections detected last week, surpassing previous peaks. The B.1.617 variant of SARS-CoV2 or the ‘Indian strain’, feared to be contributing to a surge in coronavirus cases in India, has been designated as the Variants of Interest (VOI) by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN health agency said in its weekly epidemiological update on Tuesday.

“As of 27 April, over 1,200 sequences have been uploaded to GISAID and assigned to lineage B.1.617 (collectively) from at least 17 countries,” it said, adding that most sequences were uploaded from India, the United Kingdom, USA and Singapore. GISAID is a global science initiative and primary source established in 2008 that provides open-access to genomic data of influenza viruses and the coronavirus responsible for the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants within Pango lineage B.1.617 were recently reported as a VOI from India and have recently been designated as VOIs by WHO,” it said. The WHO said that studies have highlighted that the spread of the second wave has been much faster than the first in India.

“Preliminary modelling by WHO based on sequences submitted to GISAID suggest that B.1.617 has a higher growth rate than other circulating variants in India, suggesting potential increased transmissibility, with other co-circulating variants also demonstrating increased transmissibility,” the report by the global health body said. “Other drivers may include challenges around the implementation and adherence to public health and social measures (PHSM), and social gatherings (including mass gatherings during cultural and religious celebrations, and elections). Further investigation is needed to understand the relative contribution of these factors,” it said.

In many cities in Maharashtra – the worst-hit state in India – the B.1.617 variant was found in more than 50 per cent of samples on which genome sequencing was conducted, Sujeet Singh, the Director of the National Centre for Disease Control, had said in a webinar on genome sequencing last week. The B.1.617 variant comprises several sub-lineages, including B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3, which slightly differ by their characteristic mutations, the WHO report said.

Both B.1.617.1 and B.1.617.2 were first identified in India in December 2020, and have been detected at increasing prevalence concurrent to the major upsurge observed in the country. B.1.617.3 was first detected in India in October 2020, but relatively fewer viruses matching this sub-lineage have been reported to date, the report said.

The B.1.617 variant has three new spike protein mutations. Two mutations — E484Q and L452R — are in the area important for antibody-based neutralisation. The third mutation — P681R — allows the virus to enter cells a little better. These are defining characteristics of the variant.

Covishield and Covaxin – the two coronavirus vaccines currently in use in India – have efficacy against the ‘Indian strain’ and show “milder” illness in case of infection post vaccination, Anurag Agrawal, the Director of the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), said, citing preliminary results of a study. The WHO said that globally, new Covid-19 cases increased for the ninth consecutive week, with nearly 5.7 million new cases reported in the last week, surpassing previous peaks and India accounts for 38 per cent of the global cases reported during the period.

The number of new deaths increased for the sixth consecutive week, with over 87,000 new deaths reported. For the third consecutive week, the South-East Asia region reported the highest relative increases in both case and death incidences.

“While a number of countries in the region are reporting upward trends, India accounts for the vast majority of cases from this regional trend and 38 per cent of global cases reported in the past week,” it said. With 52 per cent increase, India has reported the highest number of new cases (21,72,063) followed by the US (406,001 new cases; 15 per cent decrease), Brazil (404,623 new cases; 12 per cent decrease), Turkey (378,771 new cases; 9 per cent decrease), and France (211,674 new cases; 9 per cent decrease).

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Surge Tests, Vaccine Measures as B1.617.2 Covid-19 Variant Spreads Rapidly in Parts of UK

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The case numbers related to the B1.617.2 variant of Covid-19, first identified in India, have more than doubled within a week in the UK, resulting in further surge testing and enhanced vaccine measures to be deployed in parts of the country where the strain is beginning to spread increasingly rapidly. Public Health England (PHE) said on Thursday that its latest analysis shows the number of cases of the highly transmissible variant first detected in Maharashtra has risen from 520 last week to 1,313 cases this week.

Most cases are in the northwest of England, with some in London, and additional measures are being put in place to “rapidly break chains of transmission”. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the health authorities are monitoring the situation very carefully and will not hesitate to take further action if necessary, indicating that the roadmap to lifting all lockdown measures from June 21 may have to be reassessed.

This data demonstrates why our swift and decisive measures are in place. Everyone has a part to play in controlling this variant, from participating in surge testing, to following the rules, to getting the jab, said Hancock. We are committed to working with local areas and deploying our world-leading genomic sequencing to get this variant under control. We are supporting areas where the cases of this variant are rising, he said.

The minister said it is imperative that people who live in one of the 15 areas currently covered by surge testing processes get a free PCR test and everyone who’s eligible needs to come forward and get their vaccine. PHE said that while there is no firm evidence yet to show this variant has any greater impact on the severity of disease or that it evades vaccines, the “speed of growth is concerning”.

UK Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the authorities are looking at how to best utilise the vaccine roll-out to protect the most vulnerable in the context of the current epidemiology, including the possibility of bringing forward the second doses for the most vulnerable in some of the most affected areas. Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, one of the hotspots of the variant, has also called for a speeding up in the age eligibility criteria for vaccines in the affected areas. The National Health Service (NHS) is now offering a jab to all over the age of 38.

Cases of this variant are rising in the community and we are continuously monitoring its spread and severity to ensure we take rapid public health action, said Dr Susan Hopkins, Covid-19 Strategic Response Director at PHE. Testing and isolating when required not only limits spread, it helps us to better understand how the variant behaves in the community which is vital to taking effective and proportionate action moving forward “The way to limit the spread of all variants is the same. Keep your distance, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly, cover your nose and mouth when inside, keep buildings well ventilated and meet people from other households outside, she said.

The variant was confirmed as a “Variant of Concern” by PHE on May 7 after a rise in cases and evidence of spread in some areas. Since then across the northwest of England, significant work is underway with local councils and partners. In Bolton, mobile testing units have been deployed and door to door PCR testing has been offered to 22,000 residents. A vaccine bus has been established in the heart of the community to increase vaccine uptake as part of a wider drive.

PCR testing, whole genome sequencing and enhanced contact tracing are being used throughout London to target the many small dispersed clusters. All positive tests in London with a high enough viral load are also being prioritised for genomic sequencing to check for variants, and surge testing can begin immediately if it is needed. Taking this community-led approach has already proved effective in reducing transmission of variants in London to date, PHE said.

To help identify variant cases, surge testing is being deployed in 15 areas across England to suppress transmission, with more than 800,000 additional PCR test kits distributed. According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), over 4,400 cases and over 14,000 close contacts have been traced and instructed to self-isolate.

Over 200 existing test sites and 130 schools have distributed test kits, with Mobile Testing Units deployed to provide PCR testing for people without symptoms. The public is also being urged to continue to take up the offer of two free rapid tests a week, to help identify asymptomatic cases. Anyone who does test positive in this way should take a follow-up PCR test, which can be sent for genome sequencing to help catch new variant cases.

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National Platform to Determine Impact of Covid-19 Vaccines to Be Established Soon

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A national tracking platform will be established soon to determine the impact of the jabs against COVID-19 and the breakthrough infections that are likely to occur among those with complete and partial immunisation, official sources said. The recommendation of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI) to establish such a platform has been accepted by the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration for COVID-19 and the Union Health Ministry, they said.

“The COVID-19 Working Group which is part of NTAGI has strongly recommended to urgently establish a national vaccine tracking platform to determine the impact of the COVID vaccine(s) and the breakthrough infections that are likely to occur among those with complete and partial immunisation,” said Dr N K Arora, the INCLEN Trust chairperson who heads the COVID-19 Working Group. The vaccine tracker will be particularly important to monitor the impact of increasing the dosing schedule of Covishield, he said, as the government on Thursday accepted the working group’s recommendation to extend the gap between the two doses of the Covishield vaccine from 6-8 weeks to 12-16 weeks.

The current data harmonisation work of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and other agencies can be leveraged to set up this facility for review of ground realities on real-time basis, the NTAGI has recommended. The government panel has also recommended that pregnant women may be offered the choice to take any of the COVID-19 vaccines and that lactating women can be inoculated any time after delivery.

The NTAGI has also stated that those having laboratory test proven SARS-CoV-2 illness should defer COVID-19 vaccination for six months after recovery, the sources said. According to the health ministry’s current protocol, vaccine is to be taken four to eight weeks after recovery from COVID-19 infection and pregnant and lactating women are not to be administered the shots.

The NTAGI recommended that all pregnant women visiting for antenatal care (ANC) may be informed about risks and benefits associated with Covishield and Covaxin. Based on the information provided, a pregnant woman may be offered the choice to take any of the vaccines. An educational tool comprising information on risk of COVID-19 infection during pregnancy, benefits associated with the vaccination and rare complications associated with vaccines like thrombosis and thrombocytopenia (with Covishield) may be developed.

In case of individuals who have received the first dose and before completion of the dosing schedule if they test positive for COVID-19, they should wait for 4-8 weeks after clinical recovery from the illness. Also, COVID-19 patients who have been given anti-SARS-CoV-2 monoclonal antibodies or convalescent plasma may defer vaccination for three months from the day of discharge from hospital, the recommendations stated.

Individuals having any other serious illness requiring hospitalisation or ICU care should also wait for 4-8 weeks before getting the vaccine, it added.

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Delhi Police Quiz Youth Congress President Srinivas BV Over Covid Assistance to Public

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Indian Youth Congress (IYC) president Srinivas BV on Friday said the Delhi Police’s Crime Branch questioned him about the assistance being provided by him to people during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Police called me this morning and came to my office around 11.45 am. They questioned that how you are doing it,” he said.

However, the Delhi Police said the questioning has been done following a Delhi High Court order. The high court has directed the city police to conduct inquiry into politicians involved in distribution of COVID-19 medicines and other items, and take steps for lodging of FIR in case of offence, a senior police officer said.

In compliance with the directions of the high court, inquiry is being conducted into several people, the officer said. On May 4, the Delhi High Court had asked the police to examine the instances of politicians allegedly procuring and distributing Remdesivir, used in treatment of COVID-19 patients, in the national capital and take steps for lodging of FIR in case of offence.

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