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'Double mutant' variant threatens India's pandemic gains

Murali Krishnan New Delhi
March 29, 2021

India had managed to partially contain the COVID-19 spread by the end of 2020, but the number of infections is rising rapidly once again. Experts say a "double mutant" variant could be responsible for this spike.

A motorist rides past a graffiti painted on a road to raise awareness about COVID-19
A motorist rides past a graffiti painted on a road to raise awareness about COVID-19 in IndiaImage: Arun Sankar/AFP/Getty Images

A new "double mutant" coronavirus variant has been detected in several Indian states, triggering fear that India's "second wave" could be more dangerous than the first.

In addition, authorities have reported several other variants in at least 18 states amid a surge in coronavirus infections across the country.

The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG) is carrying out genomic sequencing on the latest samples of the double mutant variant.

So far, a total of 736 cases of the variant first discovered in the UK, 34 of the one from South Africa and one case of the variant from Brazil have been traced in the country, Sujeet Kumar Singh, the director of the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC), told media last week.

What is a double mutant variant?

Authorities say that an analysis of samples collected from the western state of Maharashtra shows a rise in E484Q and L452R mutations since December.

India's fight against new 'double mutant' COVID-19 variant

"Double mutation happens when two mutated variants of a virus come together to form a third variant. The one reported in India is a combination of E484Q and L452R variants," MC Mishra, a former medical superintendent at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, told DW.

Health experts say the L452R variant was first found in the US, whereas the E484Q variant is indigenous.

"This double mutant could be a major reason behind the upsurge in COVID cases, but we need to wait for test results to determine if it is the case," Mishra added.

Concerns about possible reinfections

Scientists say the emergence of COVID variants in India was not unexpected.

"We don't know for sure whether the upswing in cases is related to variants, but it is a possibility, and we need to investigate it," Shahid Jameel, a medical expert, told DW.

Health experts worry that the double mutation could allow the virus to escape the body's immune system, making itself more resistant to antibodies. There is also a possibility that it can reinfect patients who have already recovered from COVID-19, they added. In some cases, the virus might also be able to defend itself against the vaccines currently in use.

"What we are seeing is a spike in coronavirus cases, which shows that the virus variants are contributing to an increased transmission," Lalit Kant, the former head of the epidemiology and communicable diseases department at the Indian Council of Medical Research, told media.

Surge in COVID infections

India on Monday recorded 68,020 new COVID-19 cases, taking the total tally to 12.39 million, according to Health Ministry data. The South Asian country also registered 291 deaths in the last 24 hours (Sunday to Monday), which brought the overall death toll to 161,843.

The state of Maharashtra accounted for most of the news cases, with state authorities mulling a strict lockdown. Delhi reported around 1,900 infections, the highest number of cases in the capital since December 15, 2020.

The country has been reporting over 40,000 new daily cases for over a week, after the infections sharply fell in January and February.

Authorities urge people to strictly follow COVID protocols.

"A five-step strategy has been introduced to tackle the situation, including effective containment and contact tracing for at least 14 successive days in 46 districts," said Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan after he chaired a high-level meeting with officials of 12 states and union territories last week.

The federal government has urged state health authorities to do their best to make sure that the new situation doesn't undo India's gains last year.

India started its mass COVID vaccination drive on January 16, but so far just over 60 million vaccinations have been administered in the country.

On April 1, the nationwide vaccination drive will enter the third phase, in which people over 45 can get the vaccine. India hopes to vaccinate 300 million people by August.

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11