Variant accelerating India's COVID explosion: WHO top scientistSaturday, May 08, 2021
GENEVA, Switzerland (AFP) – A COVID-19 variant spreading in India is more contagious and may be dodging vaccine protections, contributing to the country's explosive outbreak, the World Health Organization's chief scientist said Saturday.
In an interview with AFP, Soumya Swaminathan warned that "the epidemiological features that we see in India today do indicate that it's an extremely rapidly spreading variant".
India on Saturday for the first time registered more than 4,000 COVID-19 deaths in just 24 hours, and more than 400,000 new infections.
New Delhi has struggled to contain the outbreak, which has overwhelmed its healthcare system, and many experts suspect the official death and case numbers are a gross underestimate.
Swaminathan, an Indian paediatrician and clinical scientist, said the B.1.617 variant of COVID-19, which was first detected in India last October, was clearly a contributing factor to the catastrophe unfolding in her homeland.
"There have been many accelerators that are fed into this," the 62-year-old said, stressing that "a more rapidly spreading virus is one of them".
The WHO recently listed B.1.617 – which counts several sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics – as a "variant of interest".
But so far it has stopped short of adding it to its short list of "variant of concern" – a label indicating it is more dangerous than the original version of the virus by being more transmissible, deadly or able to get past vaccine protections.
Several national health authorities, including in the United States and Britain, have meanwhile said they consider B.1.617 a variant of concern, and Swaminathan said she expected the WHO to soon follow suit.
"B 1.617 is likely to be a variant of concern because it has some mutations which increase transmission, and which also potentially could make (it) resistant to antibodies that are generated by vaccination or by natural infection," she said.
But she insisted that the variant alone could not be blamed for the dramatic surge in cases and deaths seen in India, lamenting that the country appeared to have let down its guard down, with "huge social mixing and large gatherings".
Mass election rallies held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other politicians have for instance partly been blamed for the staggering rise in infections.
But even as many in India felt the crisis was over, dropping mask-wearing and other protection measures, the virus was quietly spreading.
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