The Covid-19 Variant in India: What Scientists Know About the B.1.617 Strain

Scientists and public health officials are racing to understand the risk posed by a coronavirus variant known as B.1.617, which the World Health Organization on Monday designated a global “variant of concern.”

The WHO says preliminary studies show the variant may spread more easily than other strains of the new coronavirus. Scientists and public-health experts are trying to better understand the role it is playing in the record-setting surge of Covid-19 cases that has overwhelmed India’s healthcare system in recent days—and what risk it poses to the rest of the world. India reported more than 366,000 new cases of Covid-19 on Monday.

Here’s what we know so far about the B.1.617 variant.

What is the new coronavirus variant that was first discovered in India?

The variant, identified in October, is a mutant form of the virus that causes Covid-19. It has 13 mutations, including two notable ones in the spike protein that the virus uses to attach to and infect cells.

One of the mutations, dubbed E484Q, is similar to one that is common to the variants identified in South Africa and Brazil. In those variants, the mutation seems to make the virus better at evading the body’s immune responses. The other, known as L452R, is also found in the dominant strain in California, and may boost viral transmission.

The two mutations “are in really important parts of the structure of the spike protein,” said Benjamin Pinsky, associate professor of pathology at Stanford University School of Medicine and medical director of the Clinical Virology Laboratory at Stanford Health Care. “They’re important for the interaction of the virus with the host.”

Scientists are also looking into a third mutation, P681R, which might help the virus replicate more quickly.

India has put vaccine distribution to other countries on hold as the country battles the world’s fastest-growing Covid-19 surge. The delay in distribution is hampering the global vaccination effort. Photo illustration: Laura Kammermann
How contagious is this variant?

Public-health officials in the U.K. said preliminary evidence suggests that one version of the variant is at least as transmissible as a highly contagious variant known as B.1.1.7. That variant has spread around the world after it was first identified in southern England last year.

Yet some scientists aren’t sure the virus spreads more easily. “I don’t know that we have a good answer to that right now,” Dr. Pinsky said. “The current pandemic in India is out of control and devastating, but I don’t think it’s entirely clear how much this variant and other variants are contributing to the widespread transmission.”

Scientists don’t yet know if the B.1.617 variant is deadlier than other variants.

Indians line up for vaccinations in Prayagraj. Researchers are looking into vaccines’ effectiveness against the B.1.617 variant.



Photo:

Rajesh Kumar Singh/Associated Press

Will existing vaccines work against this variant?

Scientists are still investigating that question. One recent study documented a cluster of B.1.617 infections in Indian healthcare workers who had been vaccinated with the shot developed by the University of Oxford and

AstraZeneca

PLC. Lab studies conducted by the authors of the study, which hasn’t yet undergone peer review, suggest that antibodies elicited by the vaccine developed by

Pfizer Inc.

and

BioNTech SE

were slightly less effective at neutralizing B.1.617 than other variants.

Ravindra Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge and one of the study’s lead authors, told reporters Monday that even if research confirms the B.1.617 variant is more likely than other variants to cause infection in people who have already been vaccinated, vaccines should nonetheless be effective at preventing severe illness and death.

A spokeswoman for Pfizer said the vaccine’s effectiveness against the B.1.617 variant will be tested as part of the company’s ongoing monitoring efforts.

Johnson & Johnson

said it was testing whether the immune response elicited by its Covid-19 vaccine could target and neutralize the strain in a laboratory setting.

Moderna Inc.

didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Researchers have also reported that a vaccine developed by Indian drugmaker Bharat Biotech, which is being rolled out in India, appears to be effective against B.1.617.

Are there any cases of this new variant in the U.S.?

At least 350 cases of the B.1.617 variant have been reported in the U.S., according to data from the nonprofit Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data, or GISAID. The variant has been reported in more than two dozen states, including California, New York and Massachusetts.

To limit the variant’s spread, the U.S. has suspended most travel from India to the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stipulates that all U.S.-bound air travelers have proof of a negative Covid-19 test administered no more than three days before arrival.

Can I get reinfected with this variant even after I’ve had Covid-19 or been vaccinated against it?

Yes, just as it is possible to get reinfected with any other variant.

Although some of the key mutations of the B.1.617 variant could help it spread to some people who have had Covid-19 in the past or who have been vaccinated, the vaccines should provide protection against severe cases of Covid-19, Cambridge’s Dr. Gupta said.

Write to Sarah Toy at [email protected] and Jason Douglas at [email protected]

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