“B.1.617.2” sounds rather uninteresting, but it harbours a sinister alter-ego. It is otherwise known as The Indian Covid Variant, and it has spread to over 50 countries across every continent (except Antarctica) despite global travel restrictions. The variant was first identified in the Maharashtra region of India earlier this year and now accounts for over half of cases there. The World Health Organisation labelled the new variant a “major concern” on May 11th as it began to be detected in countries further afield.
The variant contains two mutations to the outer spike protein of the virus. This is the part that attaches to human cells. All the variants of concern to date, including the B.1.1.7 from the UK, the B.1.351 from South Africa, and the P.1 from Brazil, had one or more mutations. Therefore, COVID mutations should not cause unnecessary panic, especially as these are part of the natural evolution of a virus. Some experts believe the Indian variant to be as much as 50% more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the UK.
At Emory University in Atlanta, research suggests that antibodies generated from the COVID vaccine may be less effective on B.1.617.1, one of the lineages of the Indian variant. Vaccines are seven-fold less likely to combat the Indian variant. Despite these preliminary approximations, the researchers suggest that the vaccines will ultimately work against the variant. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that the Pfizer vaccine is 97% effective in preventing severe disease and death in patients infected by any form of the coronavirus, including the variants. This is heart-warming news.
This week, Public Health England reported that the Pfizer-BioNTech and AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines were effective against the Indian variant, with 88% and 60% effectiveness, respectively. As with all empirical data, numbers fluctuate as researchers find the answer. The bottom line is that they cannot be sure, but the information suggests the vaccines are effective against the COVID variants. Just like the common cold virus evolves each year, and vaccines are tweaked to meet the new variants every year, Covid is likely to follow a similar path. As the vaccination programmes are continued in India, Australia, and globally, we can be confident this ultimately has a happy ending. Unfortunately, not for everyone.
Long after the face masks are ditched, and we return to a life not measured by social distancing, the death toll of COVID will be its legacy. In the interim – get vaccinated!!