International researchers believe this variant is typically of Indian origin. As a result, researchers and media houses from across the globe are now focusing on Vidarbha; some even visited Nagpur while tracing the new “Indian variant”. “It’s different than the UK, or Africa or Brazil variant, which have been discussed at the start of this wave,” said infectious disease specialist Dr Nitin Shinde, who has been receiving inquiries from many international researchers and journalists about the second wave in India.
“Many countries, including the UK, have imposed travel bans to India. This is because a specific variant of the virus – B.1.617 – is becoming increasingly common,” said Dr Shinde. He believes the Amravati surge was also due to this variant, though it needs to be confirmed with more research.
According to data shared by th eGlobal Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GSAID), B.1.617 was first found in samples collected in December 2020 in the country. They have data of genome sequencing of Indian samples up to April 3 this year. Until then, this variant was visible in 29% of the samples in India.
GSAID is recognised for its importance to global health by G20 health ministers. In 2020, WHO called this data science initiative “a game changer” with regard to the pandemic.
Dr Atul Gawande, from Umarkhed in Yavatmal district of Vidarbha and currently a member of US President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 control advisory team, has also expressed concern about this variant while calling it “extremely frightening”. “I am seeing this variant go through entire households of my family in India. Whether it is more lethal, and whether vaccines work well against it, remain unclear,” he said.
As noted by Dr Gawande, it has been observed, especially in Vidarbha, that this variant is infecting entire families, unlike its predecessors in the September 2020 wave. This means the virus is significantly more infectious, he says. But whether it is lethal or not is still to be studied. At present, the variant is “under investigation”. It is still not designated a “variant of concern” but scientists have recognised it as a “variant of interest”. According to an initial study by virology researcher Grace Roberts from Queen’s University, Belfast, this variant is estimated to be around 20% more transmissible than the earlier form of the coronavirus that circulated during the first wave.
However, officials in the ministry of health said the rise in cases is not linked to the variant as B.1.617 hasn’t been detected in high enough quantities to determine whether it is directly responsible. Experts, though, think that this may be due to lack of data, and many have stressed the importance of increasing virus sequencing to get a better picture.