New 'double mutant' coronavirus variant detected in India

Health officials in India on Wednesday said a new "double mutant" coronavirus variant has been detected in the country, which is racing to vaccinate its population against a rising number of new COVID-19 cases.  

India’s Health Ministry said the U.K., South African and Brazilian variants of the virus have also been detected in 18 states and union territories across the country. But officials cautioned against linking the variants with an ongoing surge in new infections in India.

"Though (variants of concern) and a new double mutant variant have been found in India, these have not been detected in numbers sufficient to either establish or direct relationship or explain the rapid increase in cases in some states," the health ministry said in a statement. "Genomic sequencing and epidemiological studies are continuing to further analyze the situation."

COVID-19 cases in India had been plummeting since September and life was returning to normal, but new cases began spiking again in February. More than 47,000 new infections were reported Wednesday, along with 275 deaths — the highest one-day death toll in India in more than four months.

A Health worker wearing a personal protective equipment (PPE

FILE - A health worker wearing personal protective equipment takes a swab sample from a passenger for a COVID-19 rapid antigen test at New Delhi Railway Station. (Photo by Naveen Sharma/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)In Delhi random testing

New versions of viruses — called variants — regularly emerge, and viruses are constantly mutating. Genomic sequencing is needed to closely monitor and identify them. Most mutations are trivial, but scientists have been investigating which ones might make the virus spread more easily or make people sicker. 

The three variants first detected in South Africa, Britain and Brazil are considered the most worrisome and have been designated "variants of concern." 

The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Consortium on Genomics (INSACOG), a grouping of 10 laboratories established by the government, has sequenced some 10,787 samples in the country since Dec. 30. A total of 771 cases of these known coronavirus variants were detected: 736 of the U.K. (B.1.1.7) variant, 34 of the South African (B.1.351) and one of the Brazilian (P.1) lineage.

The new variant found in India has two mutations in the spike protein — E484Q and L452R — that the virus uses to fasten itself to cells, said Dr. Rakesh Mishra, the director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, one of the 10 labs sequencing the virus.

Mishra told the Associated Press that these genetic tweaks could be of concern since they might help the coronavirus spread more easily and escape the immune system, but he cautioned against linking it to the surge.

The Health Ministry said in its statement that the variant was found in 15%-20% of the samples sequenced from India's western Maharashtra state. The state, which is home to India's financial capital, has been worst hit by the recent surge and accounts for over 60% of all active cases in India.

In Maharashtra's Nagpur city, the infections caused by this new variant were in those parts of the city that had, so far, been least affected, said Dr. Sujeet Singh, the chief of the National Centre for Disease Control in New Delhi.

"The susceptible pool of population ... was substantially large," Singh added.

Meanwhile, health officials admitted that they were worried about upcoming festivals, many of which mark the advent of the spring. India's government has written to states to consider imposing restrictions, but many celebrants have defied distancing and virus protocols.

To date, more than 40 million people in the world’s second-most populous country have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — or about 3%. Roughly 8 million people (0.6% of the population) are fully vaccinated, data from Johns Hopkins University shows.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.