Indian experts to meet over new coronavirus strain in UK
The top advisory body of the Union Health Ministry will meet on Monday to discuss the new variant of coronavirus, which has forced the United Kingdom to impose new restrictions during the holiday season and prompted other European nations to ban travel from the country. Experts from AIIMS, Indian Council of Medical Research, and a representative from World Health Organization will attend the meeting.
The new-found variant of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19 has been dubbed VUI-202012/01. It is reportedly 70% more transmissible. To give a perspective, until a few weeks ago, the new strain was associated with 10-15% coronavirus cases in some areas. Last week, it was associated with nearly 60% of cases in London, reports The Guardian.
On Sunday, Britain's top advisory body, the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), released a summary on the new variant. Dr. Muge Cevik, a member of the group said, "Although the results depend on the quality and quantity of data you feed it, this appears to be an important variant based on genetic data." Notably, mutations in viruses aren't uncommon.
The scientists are particularly concerned about the changes in the new variant's spike protein. The spike protein is a part of the virus which allows it to compromise cells in the lungs, etc. Stuart Neil, a professor of virology at King's College London, told The Guardian that the spike protein can significantly improve the virus' ability to interact with a receptor called ACE-2.
So far, there isn't enough evidence to suggest that vaccines would be rendered useless against this strain. Sir Patrick Vallance, Britain's top advisor, hoped doses will work. But microbiologists feel this version could become vaccine-resistant. "Whilst it may not be actually resistant, it may not take so many changes after this for it to get there," said Ravindra Gupta from the University of Cambridge.
Last week, UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed that the situation sparked due to this new strain is "out of control." And from Sunday, the government, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, imposed a lockdown in London and southeast England, affecting more than 16 million Britons. The permission given to three households to interact for five days over the festive period was rolled back.
"When the virus changes its method of attack, we must change our method of defense. We have to act on information as we have it because this is now spreading very fast," Johnson said on Saturday.
The new strain has left many countries worried, India being one of them. An emergency meeting has been called today, just as the country readies to begin the vaccination program. Just yesterday, Union Health Minister Dr. Harsh Vardhan hinted that India may start vaccinating citizens from January 2021. Earlier today, Congress' spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill said the Indian government should ban travel from the UK.
New virus strain in UK it’s impact shows that “it ain’t over till it’s over” - Indian health authorities must study UK strain, ban flights from Uk if required people should not lower their guard merely hearing news of vaccine coz #Covid_19 is unpredictable unforgivable— Jaiveer Shergill (@JaiveerShergill) December 21, 2020
Learning from the experience earlier this year, when COVID-19 was relatively new, European countries shut doors to travelers from the UK. France has barred people coming from the UK for 48 hours starting Sunday night — even freight carriers have been stopped. Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands have suspended flights from the UK, and Belgium is planning to close borders to flights and trains.
Separately, the United States, which is the worst-affected nation, is studying the new strain. Top health officials said on Sunday that they are "very carefully" looking into developments. However, a travel ban from the UK is not being considered currently. "This particular variant in the UK is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity," said Moncef Slaoui, chief advisor to Operation Warp Speed.