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How should India handle the new virus variants?

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Syllabus: GS 3

Synopsis: Mutation of the coronavirus has become a new threat for the world. India must take precautionary measures to deal with it.

Introduction 

New SARS-CoV-2 variants have emerged independently in several countries and the virus is changing very quickly.  If it continues to change, currently available vaccines will become ineffective.

Why do viruses mutate?

All the viruses carry a genetic code in the form of RNA or DNA. The DNA is replicated as the cells multiply and this process may cause random errors in the new DNA.

Errors in DNA can be corrected by the enzymes present in the cell. However, RNA doesn’t contain enzymes, thus errors caused in RNA cannot be corrected. It causes more genetic changes (mutations)in RNA than DNA viruses.

How are vaccines tested for efficiency against emerging variants?

  • Indirect tests are conducted in labs. It will find if variant virus escapes antibodies developed after natural infection or vaccination.
  • Antibodies that neutralize the original virus are tested on the variant viruses. 

Are the emerging variants vulnerable to vaccines?

  • The emerging variants from South Africa could pose a challenge to current vaccines. Not enough information is available yet for the Brazil variant.
  • However, the studies have only tested antibody responses. Vaccines also increase cellular immunity to eliminate infection which has not been tested.

The evidence currently does not suggest that vaccines are failing. 

  • However, Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech have agreed that their vaccines have had reduced protection against the South African variant. Both the companies are now working on developing new vaccines to fight these variants.

What steps should India take in this situation?

There is no local transmission of the new variants in India until now. Only the UK variant viruses have been found in travellers coming to India. 

  1. Firstly, India should strictly implement masks and limit crowds. It should also do the contact tracing of people infected with the new UK variant. 
  2. Secondly, India should also put a ban on travel from South Africa and Brazil just like the US did. India must also be cautious of people with a history of travel to South Africa since October 2020, and Brazil since December 2020.
  3. Thirdly, the most efficient way to catch emerging variants is increased genomic surveillance. So far, there are only about 5,000 SARS-CoV-2 sequences from India in public databases, which accounts for only 0.05 percent of confirmed cases. 

The setting up of an inter-ministerial group -Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) to increase genomic surveillance is a step in the right direction. India should take more such steps. 

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