New Delhi, December 29: COVID-19 vaccines will work against new variants of the coronavirus and there is no evidence that current vaccines will fail to protect against the SARS-CoV-2 mutants reported from the United Kingdom or South Africa, the government said on Tuesday.
Addressing a press conference, Principal Scientific Advisor K Vijay Raghavan said so far it has not been found that the new variant of the coronavirus increases the severity of the disease.
“There is no evidence that current vaccines will fail to protect against COVID-19 variants reported from the UK or South Africa. Vaccines stimulate our immune system to produce a wide range of protective antibodies. The changes in the variants are not sufficient to make the vaccines ineffective,” he said.
“If you look at the surface of SARS-CoV2, there are changes in the spike proteins in the UK and South Africa variants. There are 17 changes in the UK variant of the coronavirus, of which eight are very important… these eight changes the spike protein,” he said.
The virus enters human cell through receptors. N501Y increases affinity for the ACE2 receptor used for viral entry into human cells, Raghavan said, underlining there is a concern about the new variants.
Citing data from the UK, he said cases in September-October were less there but the new coronavirus variant comprises 80 per cent of the total number of infections.
“This is spreading very rapidly and taking over the frequency of all other variants as dominating them. This is also reflected in large positivity in the UK. The positivity has gone up in the UK substantially but the fraction of positivity which is due to this variant has also gone up substantially,” Raghavan said.
It is important globally because this increases transmission, he stressed.
The principal scientific advisor, however, stated that there is no evidence so far that it spikes severity of the disease, but because it increases transmission it will lead to rise in the number of people who are affected and therefore the number of severely diseased.
“Therefore, we must take extraordinary precautions to prevent these kinds of variants from dominating the population,” he said.
On what should scientists, government and researchers do, Raghavan said given the widespread prevalence of the virus, these kind of variants can also arise elsewhere.
“We are not only sequencing our population who have been tested positive by choosing representative samples, but we will also test these samples in the laboratory to see whether the infectivity has increased and do field studies to see whether transmission of any specific variants have increased.
“This will protect us substantially and it is very important from the scientific perspective about what we are doing. So, (we are) testing and sequencing samples across the country, from international travellers and those from hospitals,” he said.
Raghavan urged people not to be complacent. A vaccine will be available soon and that will be the exit visa from this for sure, he said.
“But that has to be rolled out steadily. It has to go to priority groups and has to reach the country. All of that will take time. We have to be patient,” he said.
NITI Aayog Member (Health) Dr V K Paul said there has been a consistent decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths which is reassuring given the current COVID-19 scenario across the world.
“We are consistently showing a decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases, active cases and deaths, which is very reassuring. It stands out particularly during this very period when several nations are facing a devastating situation,” Paul said adding, it is being seen that situation in all states is stabilising.
He said a majority of the population is still susceptible to the infection during the winter.
“The UK mutation is contagious and its transmission presents a concern before us and destabilises our preparations. The UK variant has travelled to several other countries and also to India, this virus strain may have its own run and we have to very careful,” Paul said.
Also, when a new type of virus enters a population, it is easier to suppress that in the beginning because the spread is limited, he said while urging people to remain vigilant and keep following COVID-appropriate behaviour.
He further said the Indian Council of Medical Research has decided to study the disease in all its aspects of severity — mild and serious — and going beyond genome sequencing to study the behaviour of the virus.
He said the established strategy of testing, tracing and tracking will continue and wherever cases will be found, they will be isolated and their contacts quarantined.
Also, wherever clusters will be formed, containment zones will be made and house-to-house search will be carried out to curb the chain of transmission of this new variant, Paul said. (PTI)