As India registered 53,476 fresh cases of COVID-19 in the past 24 hours pushing the national tally to 1,17,87,534, according to the Union Health Ministry, a new coronavirus ‘double mutant’ strain of concern has been uncovered by researchers. On March 24, the Health Ministry revealed that the Genome sequencing by the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) has detected coronavirus variant with ‘double mutation’. Doctors in India have noted that mutations in rapidly spreading viruses are common but also alerted that it is a matter of concern but not panic.
The government said that following an analysis of samples collected from Maharashtra showed “an increase in the fraction of samples with the E484Q and L452R mutations" compared with December last year.
The Union Health Ministry also said, “Such [double] mutations confer immune escape and increased infectivity.” Shekhar C. Mande, Secretary, DSIR and Director General, Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) told Republic TV that 770 VOCs or variants of concerns detected by INSACOG are currently being "watched closely".
The "double mutant" variant has been found in 20% of the cases in Maharashtra which is currently the worst-affected state in India and is followed by Kerala.
When asked about the relation of the new variant of 'concern' in India and its relation to a possible second wave, Mande said, "It would be right to say that we should be concerned. But, it will be not right to say that we should panic." KK Aggarwal, President of Confederation of Medical Associations in Asia and Oceania (CMAAO) said "this had to happen" before adding that "we all were waiting for it".
Like all viruses that are known to exist, the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2 that causes COVID-19 also keeps mutating in small portions as it passes from one individual to another. INSACOG has also detected thousands of mutated virus genomes but only a handful of them emerge to become a concern. The vast majority of these mutations usually are inconsequential and don’t alter the way the pathogen behaves.
However, some of the changes trigger changes in the spike protein of the virus that the pathogen uses to attack and enter the cells inside the human body. It is these mutations that could potentially be more infectious, cause more severe disease and even at times, evade the COVID-19 vaccines. By "double-variant", Health Ministry means that the new strain detected in the country has a mixture of two previously known variants.
As per BBC report, Dr Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center Shreveport has noted that E484Q and L452R mutations found in India's 'double mutant' variant is similar to mutations seen in the past. E484Q is similar to E484K, which is a mutation seen in South Africa’s B.1.351 variant and Brazil’s P.1 variant, both that emerged independently. Meanwhile, L452R mutation first caught the attention of researchers as a part of another lineage in the United States of B.1.427/B.1.429, often called the 'California variant'.
KK Aggarwal also told Republic TV that not one but “there will be at least three viruses of different mutations which are spreading in India and that’s not surprising.”
He also said that the present variant from Maharashtra is E484Q and noted that E484K has been in the region was even detected in Mumbai. The senior doctor revealed that the latest mutation of the virus "most likely came from the ship or from the air" in the form of E484K or N that eventually mutated.
The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) is a grouping of 10 National Laboratories that was established by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India last year on December 25. Since then, INSACOG has been carrying out genomic sequencing and analysis of circulating COVID-19 viruses, and correlating epidemiological trends with genomic variants. Genomic variants of various viruses are a natural phenomenon and are found in almost all countries.