Six cases of Covid-19 caused by Sars-CoV-2 VOC 202012/01 (or B.1.1.7 as some are calling it) have been diagnosed in India. All six are patients who flew in from the UK over the past week, who tested positive for the virus, and whose samples were then sent for genome sequencing which confirmed the presence of the mutant strain – it has up to 23 mutations – of the coronavirus that was first sequenced in the UK in September. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone (over the past week, I’ve repeatedly emphasised that there is a high likelihood of the variant already being in India). The new strain is the predominant one in the UK, especially London; there have been 70 flights a week from the UK to India since May; and until last Monday, when it was tightened, the screening process for passengers arriving in India was a sham (it had started off well, but, over time, came to rely more on documentation and self-declaration and less on the actual screening itself).
The identification of the new strain here should spur health authorities in India to aggressively trace all those who travelled to India from the UK over the past month (at the least). Some of them may be asymptomatic carriers who have passed on the virus to others. The contact tracing process is hampered by human stupidity – at least some of the people who have travelled into India from the UK, it emerges, have provided false addresses or phone numbers; some recent travellers are believed to be keeping their phones switched off so that they cannot be reached (see page 11). This is behaviour that is potentially harmful not just to themselves and the people in their immediate vicinity (friends and family), but the public at large.
Dispatch 233, on December 28, explained that researchers in the UK have found out that the new strain is 56% more infective than the old one. It isn’t known whether the mutant strain causes more severe cases of Covid-19 or results in more fatalities, but this is actually irrelevant. The mere fact that the variant is more infective is enough: this logically means more cases of the coronavirus disease. Even assuming that the rate of hospitalisations and deaths does not change at all for the new variant (and is exactly the same as it is for Sars-CoV-2), the higher number of cases (caused by the higher infectiveness of the variant) will mean more hospitalisations and more deaths. And even assuming the proportion of hospitalisations that turns into severe cases remains constant, it means an increase in the number of severe cases. Indeed, because the higher infectiveness means more infections, which means even more infections, and so on, in a classic exponential progression, the new strain leads to a scenario which results in more deaths than even an increase in the case fatality rate would. That’s all the more reason for health authorities here to trace and isolate, something that most states have become pretty careless about, with the number of daily new cases falling. India ended Monday with just around 270,000 active cases, according to the HT dashboard (the US has 7.7 million).
India is the 21st country to have identified the new variant of the virus. The others are: Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Israel, Canada, Lebanon, Sweden, Ireland, Belgium, Finland, Iceland, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, and France. There is another strain, which shares some characteristics of B.1.1.7 that has been identified in South Africa and Nigeria. Over the course of the week, the last of the year, more countries will identify the UK strain in people testing positive, just as India itself will see more cases caused by the new strain. It’s a year-end challenge that the country should negotiate carefully.