A matter of concern: On Indian coronavirus variant

New variants do not always merit changes in public health response, but keep people alert

In March nearly 20% of the cases out of Maharashtra, which has consistently been among the most afflicted States, were being linked to the variant. However, it was in early April that this variant became formally classified as a lineage, B.1.617. It was only after the U.K.’s labelling it as a VOC that it was called so by health authorities in India. In fact, unlike the United States’s CDC or Public Health England, India still does not have a classification criterion for labelling viruses as variants of interest, or concern. Classifying variants is not just a matter of mere academic interest. Based on the prevalence, some variants may go on to become the dominant strain in a region or multiple geographies. It then becomes the responsibility of vaccine companies to check whether their vaccines continue to be effective. Such studies have already begun in India, but while laboratory studies show that vaccines continue to be effective, some of the emerging variants do seem to be better at evading antibodies. Along with monitoring reinfections and cases of breakthrough infections (testing positive after being double inoculated), flagging variants must be seen as a crucial health response. Detecting newer variants does not always merit radical changes in public health response — such as masking up — but they go a long way in reminding people to continue being alert, viewing vaccines as an important defence but not a magic pill, and keeping health authorities on their toes.

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