Just when the world thought that the pandemic was almost over, a deadly Delta Plus variant of Covid-19 has been spotted by experts in different regions. Experiments are underway to check the transmissibility of the virus and lab tests are being conducted to check the efficacy of the vaccines against the variant.
What is the Delta Plus variant of Covid-19?
Delta Plus variant of Covid-19 is a mutant strain of the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, first identified in India and has been largely responsible for driving the second wave of coronavirus infections. Although the Delta variant was first detected by scientists in India, it created havoc for the whole world.
It has since mutated to Delta Plus with additional mutations of the variants AY.1 and AY.2. It has appeared as a result of Delta acquiring a mutation called K417N in the spike protein of the virus. At present, Delta Plus is restricted to smaller regions in the country and is undergoing investigation.
Experts believe Delta Plus (B.1.617.2) has an increased transmission rate than the previous variants but the picture is not yet clear as to how virulent this new strain is, compared to the other variants. Data has revealed that the new Delta variant is around 40% to 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant. It is also not clear if the existing vaccines are at all effective against Delta Plus.
India was the first country where the Delta Plus variant of Covid-19 was found, just as it was with the original Delta variant. Its presence has been noted in a few of the Indian states, such as Maharashtra, Kerala, and Madhya Pradesh, and it is feared that it just might become the reason for the third wave of coronavirus in the country. Besides India, Delta Plus has been found in many other countries, namely, Britain, Canada, Japan, Poland, Switzerland, Russia, Turkey, and the US, as of June 16th, according to Public Health England. It triggered resurgences in Nepal, Southeast Asia, and has also made an appearance in Sydney, Australia.
Medical experts have advised authorities and people against this new variant and are urging them to stay cautious and treat Delta Plus as a highly infectious variant that might even show resistance against vaccines and medications. In the words of Dr Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, “We have to wait for more data on the mutated variant”.
“Vaccines are effective as of now against all variants in preventing severe disease and death. We will need more data from effectiveness studies. The good thing is that there are very few cases that have been described globally and we need to keep a close watch on this.”
What is a ‘variant of concern’?
A mutation is typecast as a ‘variant of interest’ or ‘variant of concern’ depending on its effortless transmission, diminished neutralization by antibodies, and effectiveness of vaccines against the variant. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a “variant of concern” as something that has at least one of the following attributes:
• Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation
• Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology
•Decrease in the effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics
The World Health Organization (WHO) had already applied the “variant of concern” label to the original Delta variant but has not classified the Delta Plus variant of Covid-19 as a “variant of concern” yet. According to scientists, enough evidence needs to be acquired if the claims of this variant being a ‘concern’ are to be supported.
However, the Indian government has already designated this Delta Plus variant of Covid-19 as a “variant of concern” and is treating the case as a preventive measure against another rapid outburst of cases nationwide. The real question is, how much worse than Delta might Delta Plus be?
What precautions are needed against the Delta Plus variant of Covid-19?
“We cannot afford to be casual now. Double-masking, vaccination, and zero tolerance for non-adherence to Covid-appropriate behaviour are extremely important at the moment”, said Dr Shashank Joshi, an expert member of the Maharashtra Covid task force. “It is extremely important to maintain physical distance and hand hygiene practices at all times.”
“The way forward is to keep a close watch on its potential presence in the country and ensure appropriate public health response”, said Dr Anita Mathew, a Mumbai-based infectious diseases specialist with Fortis Hospital. All things considered, it is crucial to take necessary preventive measures and increase testing, tracking, and ensure vaccination drives are getting done.