India reports 'double mutant' coronavirus variant as daily deaths reach year's high

A new and potentially troublesome variant of the coronavirus has been detected in India, health officials said Wednesday, though they cautioned against linking it with an ongoing surge in new infections there.

But health officials caution against linking new variant to surge in cases in Maharashtra and other states

A health worker takes a swab sample from a woman as authorities carry out COVID-19 rapid antigen tests inside the Dharavi slums in Mumbai on Wednesday. (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP/Getty Images)

A new and potentially troublesome variant of the coronavirus has been detected in India, as have variants first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil, health officials said Wednesday.

Health Ministry officials and experts, however, cautioned against linking the variants with an ongoing surge in new infections in India.

Cases in India had been plummeting since September and life was returning to normal. But cases began spiking last month and more than 47,000 new infections were detected in the past 24 hours, along with 275 deaths — the highest one-day death toll in more than four months.

The virus has been mutating throughout the pandemic. Most mutations are trivial, but scientists have been investigating which variations might make the virus spread more easily or make people sicker.

The three variants first detected in South Africa, Britain and Brazil are considered the most worrisome and have been designated "variants of concern."

The three variants were found in seven per cent of the nearly 11,000 samples that India sequenced since Dec. 30. The most widespread of these was the more contagious variant that was detected in the U.K. last year.

The new variant found in India has two mutations in the spike protein that the virus uses to fasten itself to cells, said Dr. Rakesh Mishra, the director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, one of the 10 research institutes sequencing the virus.

He added that these genetic tweaks could be of concern since they might help the virus spread more easily and escape the immune system, but he cautioned against linking the new variant to the surge.

The spike protein is relatively large with two new mutations spaced close together on it, said Rod Russell, a professor of virology and immunology at Memorial University of Newfoundland's faculty of medicine in St. John's.

One of the mutations is similar to what was first identified in the variant of concern initially discovered in South Africa, said Russel, who is not convinced the new discovery would make vaccines useless.

"You'll always have a broad immune response against a protein," Russell said. "So even if a certain variant of concern pops up, it's not going to completely knock out the effects of the vaccine."

Labourers work on personal protective equipment to be used as a preventive measure against the coronavirus at a workshop in Ahmedabad on Wednesday. (Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)

Maharashtra state worst hit

The Health Ministry said in a statement that the variant was found in 15 to 20 per cent of the samples sequenced from Maharashtra state. The state, which is home to India's financial capital, has been worst hit by the recent surge and accounts for more than 60 per cent of all active cases in India.

In Maharashtra's Nagpur city, the infections caused by this new variant were in those parts of the city that had, so far, been least affected, said Dr. Sujeet Singh, the chief of the National Centre for Disease Control in New Delhi.

"The susceptible pool of population ... was substantially large," Singh added.

Meanwhile health officials admitted that they were worried about upcoming festivals, many of which mark the advent of the spring. India's government has written to states to consider imposing restrictions, but many celebrants have defied distancing and virus protocols.

WATCH | COVID-19 cases rise in India amid religious festival, vaccine hesitancy:

COVID-19 cases rise in India amid religious festival and vaccine hesitancy

3 years ago
Duration 2:17
Featured VideoOne of the world's largest religious festivals is taking place in India and public health officials are worried. Not only is the country a COVID-19 hotspot, but vaccine hesitancy is high and experts say many people falsely believe the country has attained herd immunity.

That lax attitude and the sluggish vaccine rollout are worrisome, said Dr. Vineeta Bal, of India's National Institute of Immunology.

She said that, unlike last year, the virus was spreading through richer neighbourhoods, infecting families that had managed to stay protected in their homes earlier.

Now, people are less fearful and are letting their guard down, and Bal said masks are being worn, "but the masks are protecting people's beards, rather than their noses."

Vaccination eligibility expands

Federal Information Minister Prakash Javadekar announced Tuesday that India will start vaccinating everyone over the age of 45 starting on April 1.

So far, India's vaccination had focused on the elderly or those over 45 with ailments such as heart disease or diabetes. The vaccine is being offered for free at government hospitals and sold at a fixed price of 250 rupees ($4.32 Cdn) per shot at private hospitals.

An artist works on a mural of the Mona Lisa wearing a face mask to spread COVID-19 awareness in Mumbai on Wednesday. (Rajanish Kakade/The Associated Press)

India has given the green signal for the use of two vaccines — the AstraZeneca vaccine made locally by Serum Institute, and another by Indian vaccine maker Bharat Biotech.

Javadekar also said the interval between the two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine would be increased to up to eight weeks, compared to the four to six weeks advised earlier.

With files from CBC News