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COVID: W.H.O. Warns That Variant Found in India May Be Highly Contagious

Scientists in the U.K. now say that one of the variants from India, known as B.1.617.2, is highly contagious and likely more transmissible than the variant from the U.K., B.1.1.7.

"Transmission of this variant is currently faster than that of the B.1.1.7 variant," the U.K.'s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies wrote Friday in a document. "It is a realistic possibility that it is as much as 50% more transmissible."

The B.1.617 variant is one of the factors driving the current crisis in India and neighboring Nepal. It may also be linked to recently rising cases among unvaccinated people in the United Kingdom.

The W.H.O. emphasized in its report that it wasn’t yet clear how much the variant, known as B.1.617, had contributed to the devastating surge that has crushed India in recent weeks. It cautioned that India, like many countries, is only sequencing a tiny fraction of positive samples, and that with so little surveillance, it’s difficult to make firm conclusions about B.1.617.

Yet, the B.1.617, which was initially identified in October, is being closely watched as it spreads around the world. It's now been found in at least 44 countries, including the United States, where about 3 percent of the sequenced samples are a version of the B.1.617, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

India recorded more than 360,000 new cases on Wednesday and more than 4,200 deaths, the country’s highest daily death toll since the pandemic began. India has now reported more than 250,000 deaths from the virus, although experts believe that the true toll is far higher.

The W.H.O. speculated that another variant known as B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain and now dominant in the United States, might also be driving the swell in cases.

B.1.617 is the fourth variant of concern recognized by the W.H.O. The others include B.1.1.7; B.1.351, which swept through South Africa; and P.1, which has devastated Brazil.

Preliminary studies on the mutations suggest that some of them might give the coronavirus a tighter grip on cells, increasing their chances of a successful infection.

Officials in India are trying to track how many fully vaccinated people have fallen ill. If an unusual number of these so-called breakthroughs are caused by a variant such as B.1.617, then that could point to the variant’s ability to evade a vaccine.

The fact that there is real-world data that shows the Pfizer vaccine works very well against the South African variant, it's quite likely that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be very effective against these new Indian variants, as well.


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