The World Health Organization on Monday classified a coronavirus variant first spotted in India as a global “variant of concern,” saying preliminary studies showed it may be more transmissible than some other variants.
The WHO didn’t report any evidence suggesting that currently authorized vaccines would be less effective against the variant.
The variant, known as B.1.617, is being studied by scientists around the world as they try to figure out its role in the fast growing Covid-19 surge in India, which reported more than 366,000 new daily cases on Monday. The variant has already spread to more than 30 countries, according to the WHO, including the U.S., the U.K., France and Japan.
The surge in India rose rapidly last month, overwhelming hospitals in the country’s hardest-hit cities. Anecdotally speaking, “the pattern now is that one person in the family gets it, the whole family seems to get it,” said
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan,
the WHO’s chief scientist, in an interview. “This is unlike the first wave. And so I think what we’re seeing is more transmissible.”
The variant became the fourth so classified by the WHO. The U.N. agency has also given the same designation to the B.1.1.7 variant first identified in Southeast England, the B.1.35 variant found in South Africa; and the P.1 variant discovered by researchers in Brazil.
The WHO doesn’t generally recommend border closures, saying countries should take a nuanced assessment before imposing restrictions and avoid unnecessary disruptions to global travel. But many countries, acting on their own, have restricted travel to countries where variants of concern have been identified.
The upshot is that the WHO’s announcement could leave India further cut off from the world.
The B.1.617 variant has 13 mutations, two of which are similar to those seen separately in other variants. In other variants, one mutation is associated with making the virus more infectious and appears better at evading antibodies, while the other is similar to one that has shown signs of being able to sidestep some of the body’s immune responses.
When it comes to vaccine effectiveness against the B.1.617, a study awaiting peer review suggests “there is some reduced neutralization,” said WHO technical lead
Maria Van Kerkhove
at a press conference Monday, adding that more details would be released Tuesday. She didn’t report any findings that would suggest currently authorized vaccines aren’t effective against the variant.
“What we know now [is] that the vaccines work, the diagnostics work, the same treatment used for the regular virus work,” Dr. Swaminathan said at the press conference. “There’s no need to change any of those and in fact people should go ahead and get whatever vaccine is available to them.”
One of the lead authors of the study awaiting peer review,
said some lab studies have suggested that key mutations B.1.617 carries might help it spread to some people who have had Covid-19 before or been vaccinated. If that turns out to be the case, vaccines should still protect people against severe cases of the disease, he said. “On the individual level vaccination is still fantastic,” said Mr. Gupta, a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge.
Covid-19 in India
More WSJ coverage of the pandemic in India, selected by the editors
The variant was first detected in India’s western state of Maharashtra in October. A number of other variants have been detected in India as well, including the B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and P1.
There have been several different types of the B.1.617 variant identified. One of them was designated by U.K. public health authorities on Friday as a variant of concern, adding it to a list of viral variants kept under close surveillance. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still classifies B.1.617 lineages circulating in the U.S. as variants of interest rather than of concern.
The change in status followed a jump in detected cases over the previous week. Public Health England said it has recorded 520 confirmed cases of the variant through May 5, up 318 from the previous week. Around half the cases have been linked to international travel.
The U.K. has suffered the worst death toll in Europe from Covid-19, but cases and deaths have plummeted thanks in part to a speedy vaccination campaign. Prime Minister
said Friday the country needs to be careful about the new variant.
The variant appears to be at least as transmissible as B.1.1.7, U.K.-based scientists said in a conference call with reporters Monday.
director of the U.K.’s Covid-19 Genomics Consortium, an alliance of labs and universities that sequences viral samples, said that initial assessment is based on the variant’s genetic mutations and epidemiological modeling. More data are needed to reach firmer conclusions, and there is no evidence yet that the variant causes more severe disease than established strains, she said.
“There’s a huge amount of uncertainty around this at the moment,” Prof. Peacock said.
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