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New Covid-19 strains from Brazil, South Africa spotted in India

Our Bureau. New Delhi | Updated on February 16, 2021

Strains’ higher transmissibility sets off alarm bells

India has reported isolated cases of two new variants of SARS-CoV2 virus that first emerged in South Africa and Brazil in recent months. While there were four reported cases of the South African variant, the sole case of the Brazilian variant was detected in a person who arrived from a South American country and returned in the first week of February.

Coming on the heels of the emergence of the UK variant, which has spread to 186 countries, including India, there are concerns over the two new strains that are said to have higher transmissibility. According to Balram Bhargava, the Director General of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), both strains have mutations in the receptor binding domain of the spike protein of the virus (which the virus uses to latch onto the protein in the human lung cells), making it easy for them to infect.

According to him, the South African variant was detected in two persons who arrived from South Africa, one person each from Angola and Tanzania. He said ICMR’s National Institute of Virology is trying to isolate and culture the variant.

“The South Africa variant is worrying because it can significantly escape antibodies as well as reduce the efficacy of the vaccines,” said a genomic expert involved in studying these Covid-19 strains.

Similarly, the Brazilian variant, which first emerged in January this year, was suspected to be the reason for the spike in fresh cases, particularly in the Manaus region in Brazil. The strain has been isolated and cultured in ICMR-NIV, and scientists are attempting to assess the effectiveness of the current Covid-19 vaccines against the strain. The UK strain, on the other hand, was found in 187 people so far.

 

Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan, however, indicated that there would not be a ban on flights from Brazil as they have found that testing at airports is a better strategy. However, the worry is that there are no direct flights from either of these countries, indicating that travellers from South Africa and Brazil could be entering through multiple transit points.

He said the Health Ministry would be holding a meeting with officials from Ministry of Civil Aviation to chalk out a testing strategy. As of now, all infected persons and their contacts have been tested and quarantined.

Progress of vaccination

The Covid vaccination, which completed a month on Tuesday, however, is only making slow progress.

Though all healthcare workers need to be given the first dose by February 24, only 60 per cent of them have been given the first shot so far.

Published on February 16, 2021

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