The Covid-19 variant spreading in India, which was recently discovered in South Africa, appears to be more contagious and has been classified as being “of concern”, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday.
The reclassification of B.1.617 from a “variant of interest” to a “variant of concern” is significant as it means the variant is transmitting more easily than the original version of the virus, and might possibly have some increased resistance to vaccine protections.
To date, four cases have been identified in South Africa with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) saying that contact tracing has been performed in order to limit the spread of this variant in the country.
What ‘variant of concern’ means
“There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility of the B.1.617,” Maria Van Kerkove, the WHO’s lead on Covid-19, told reporters, also pointing to early studies “suggesting that there is some reduced neutralisation”.
“As such we are classifying this as a variant of concern at the global level,” she said, adding that more details would be provided in the WHO’s weekly epidemiological update on Tuesday.
India, suffering from one of the worst outbreaks in the world, reported nearly 370,000 fresh infections and more than 3,700 new deaths on Monday.
The devastating wave has overwhelmed India’s healthcare system, and experts have said official figures for cases and fatalities are much lower than the actual numbers.
It has for some time been feared that B.1.617 — which counts several sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics — might be contributing to the alarming spread.
But until now, WHO has listed it merely as a “variant of interest”.
Vaccines in SA
On Monday, Professor Barry Schoub, chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Covid-19 vaccines said there was no “definite proof” as yet regarding a potential lack of efficacy from the vaccines against the variant.
Schoub was speaking to Newzroom Africa before the WHO announcement.
“… there have been studies in India where they looked at people… who had recovered from infection and also looked at a vaccine made in India,” he said.
Schoub added that this vaccine was made using one of the original strains of the virus. In both instances – looking at recovery and vaccine effectiveness – “both worked pretty well”. As a result, the expectation is that existing vaccines being procured by South Africa should work “pretty well” against the variant.
Professor Barry Schoub, chairperson of the ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 vaccines speaks to @LifeWithThami about the detection of the first cases of the Covid-19 variant initially identified in India.
— Newzroom Afrika (@Newzroom405) May 10, 2021
Other serious variants
Now it will be added to the list containing three other variants of Covid-19 — those first detected in Britain, Brazil and South Africa — which the WHO has classified as being “of concern”.
They are seen as more dangerous than the original version of the virus by being more transmissible, deadly or able to get past vaccine protections.
When it comes to the B.1.617 variant, Van Kerkove stressed that for the time being “we don’t have anything to suggest that our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines don’t work”.
The WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan agreed.
“What we know now is that the vaccines work, the diagnostics work, the same treatments that are used for the regular virus work,” she told the news conference.
“So there’s really no need to change any of those, and in fact… people should go ahead and get whatever vaccine is available to them and that they are eligible for.”