The number of countries that now have Covid-19 cases where the infection is caused by the new variant first spotted in the UK in September has increased. In addition to the UK, and assuming the variant in South Africa is entirely different, the list now includes Japan, France, Spain, Sweden, Canada , Germany, Singapore and Denmark. Once India tightened its screening process for passengers flying in from the UK, it identified a bunch of positive cases — one of whom jumped into a train after testing positive and was finally apprehended in Rajamundhry, Andhra Pradesh — but the genome sequencing of these cases was still underway on Sunday as this article was being written.
There is growing evidence that the new variant is more infectious than the older version of the Sars-CoV-2 virus. Last week, scientists, including some from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published a study (under the aegis of the institute’s Center for Mathematical Modeling of Infectious Diseases; the study is yet to be peer reviewed) that showed the new variant to be 56% more infective. But there is still no evidence of it causing more severe Covid-19 cases, or resulting in more deaths.
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To repeat something I wrote last week, given that most of the coronavirus disease cases in the UK are now being caused by the new variant, and given that there have been around 70 flights a week between India and the UK since May— they were temporality halted last week, and will not resume before the end of the year — it is very likely that the variant is already here.
This columnist learns that India may have made the mistake of going slow on sequencing viral genomes over the past four months, with a majority of the whole viral genomes sequenced in the country dating back to earlier in the pandemic’s run. That will now change with India deciding that at least 5% of all positive cases from every state and Union territory will undergo genome sequencing. And much like the UK, India has finally formed a consortium of several Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) laboratories and institutions and the National Centre for Disease Control, called Insacog, and put it in charge of the country’s genomic surveillance efforts. A country with over 10 million cases of the coronavirus disease should have sequenced more than the few thousand cases India has, although, as Dispatch 232 pointed out on December 24, India isn’t the only laggard when it comes to this — the US, with close to 20 million cases is also one.
Now that India has addressed the question of genome sequencing — it still has to follow up; a previous ICMR guideline, on weekly antibody tests across each of India’s 700-plus districts has been ignored — it should also turn its attention to other questions related to the pandemic’s run in the country.
Primary among these is one on India’s unique trajectory of Covid-19 infections. To date, it is among the only countries to have seen a significant number of cases, to not witness a second wave of the pandemic. Interestingly, even large gatherings in India in recent months have not turned into superspreader events of the sort seen in the US and Europe. And October, November, and December have been the coldest in years, even decades, in North and Northwest India (in the northern hemisphere, cases were expected to surge as winter set in, and that was what happened in the US and Europe). Understanding why this hasn’t happened in India is just as important as celebrating the fact that it hasn’t. And it may just provide some insights on managing the pandemic in the months ahead as India embarks on its vaccination drive.
It’s been clear for a long time that more science, not less, is needed to address the coronavirus pandemic.