India Warns of New Versions of Delta Variant Spreading
India is warning about new versions of the highly infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus that are spreading around the country, containing a mutation that the original didn’t have.
Indian officials have dubbed new versions of the variant containing the mutation Delta Plus. Delta Plus—with the mutation causing concern designated K417N—has been detected in at least 11 countries, including the U.S., U.K. and Japan, according to government health agency Public Health England.
Indian officials have been closely monitoring the Delta variant, which fueled the country’s ferocious Covid-19 surge in April and May. India has detected about 50 cases of Delta Plus so far through genomic sequencing.
“There is no reason to think at this point it’s worse than Delta, but there is no reason to think it’s an innocuous variant,” said Dr. Anurag Agrawal, director of the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, which operates one of the labs tasked with genomic sequencing of Covid-19 in India.
Scientists say there is no evidence that Delta Plus is significantly more transmissible or deadlier than the original variant. However, studies done on other variants containing the mutation indicate it might help the virus sidestep some of the body’s immune response. Lab research also indicates that the mutation might diminish the effectiveness of some monoclonal antibody treatments.
K417N “is not a major significant mutation by itself usually,” said Ravindra Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at University of Cambridge. The mutation has also been found in versions of the Alpha variant, but failed to make that variant more dangerous, he said. “We should keep an open mind and not start panicking.”
India’s health ministry has classified Delta Plus as a variant of concern to get ahead of the situation, Dr. Agrawal said. Any mutation of Delta should technically be designated as a variant of concern, he said, after the World Health Organization classified the original Delta variant as such.
In India, the original Delta variant has crushed the competition, beating out the once-dominant Alpha variant, Dr. Agrawal said. But Delta Plus is holding its own against the original variant.
“It’s not being wiped out by Delta,” he said. But “it’s early days.”
Indian scientists, laboratories and public health agencies are trying to closely monitor new strains and mutations of the coronavirus after facing criticism for failing to give an early warning about the Delta variant. India had detected the variant last October but only announced its discovery in late March after it had spread world-wide.
The recent wave that overwhelmed India’s healthcare system in the spring has largely retreated, with new cases dropping to about 50,000 a day in recent days. Indian health officials have warned of another possible wave in the coming months.
The country has reported more than 390,000 deaths and 30.1 million cases, according to the health ministry. India has fully vaccinated about 4% of its population of more than 1.3 billion.
Public health experts have expressed worry that a variant might eventually emerge that current vaccines will be ineffective at combating. So far, existing vaccines have largely been shown to still offer strong protection against the original Delta variant.