View from India: Genome labs initiated to study virus mutations

Delta Plus, a sub lineage of Delta, a variant of Covid-19, has spread across many nations. It has also affected people in Indian states.

On the one side, the national vaccination programme is in full swing. The jab appears to be reassuring. In fact, the Centre has invited bids for drone-led vaccine delivery in remote areas and challenging locations. A standard protocol for vaccine delivery through Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) has been developed by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur.

That doesn’t mean to say that everyone is safe. No, far from that, there’s a murky dimension to it. Delta itself has boosted the second wave of the infection in India. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has described Delta as a ‘Variant of Concern’ (VoC). The second wave is not yet over, though the case trajectory is coming down. Being highly infectious, Delta has now mutated into Delta Plus, also known as AY.1.

What makes Delta Plus more dangerous than Delta is that it contains an additional mutation called K417N first found in the Beta variant of South Africa. This is in addition to the Delta variant (B.1.617.2), which drove India's deadly second wave of the pandemic. Delta Plus is very resistant to medication, treatment and vaccination, quite apart from being highly transmittable. Alarmingly, it affects the lung cells and is less responsive to the monoclonal antibodies therapy. That means those who have been vaccinated are likely to be affected by Delta Plus and it can even lead to clinical illness.

All these characteristics have been identified by INSACOG (Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortia), a consortium of 28 laboratories of Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Department of Biotechnology, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for whole genome sequencing in the context of Covid-19. INSACOG also offers timely inputs on appropriate public health response measures to be adopted by states and union territories.

Many nations are weighed down by Delta Plus, but India’s burgeoning population makes the situation much more serious than many parts of the world. It’s understandable that ICU beds are being filled up as mortality rates are increasing. This has already hit the headlines as many people have succumbed to it. Wherever the transmission of Delta Plus has happened, the Centre has said that the states should take up immediate containment measures. The emphasis is on enhanced testing, tracking and vaccination in districts and clusters where Delta Plus has spread.

Given its pace of spread, the Centre has initiated genome sequencing labs at the Lok Nayak Jai Prakash Narayan Hospital and the Institute of Liver and Biliary Sciences (ILBS) Hospital. These Delhi-based labs are gearing up for what could be a third wave of the pandemic by studying the mutating coronavirus. R&D professionals will work towards building scientific data on the strain. After detecting Delta Plus variants, Haryana and Rajasthan have become home to genome sequencing facilities. Scientists can monitor the changing variants of Covid-19.

Even as Delta Plus is making news, biopharmaceutical company AstraZeneca has partnered with healthcare startup Docon Technologies to digitise 1,000 clinics across the country. The clinics will be provided with electronic medical record (EMR) systems to manage patient history and administer treatment accordingly.

All this is happening as the country is inching closer towards a third wave of Covid. ICMR has informed the media that it’s too early to say if the Delta variant would contribute to the third wave. It definitely remains a matter of concern, as Delta Plus continues to spread rapidly.

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