No evidence vaccines won't work against UK strain, say experts as six new cases emerge; dry run successful, says Centre
According to the health ministry, the novel coronavirus impacted men more as compared to women with males consisting of 70 percent of all COVID-19 fatalities and 63 percent of the total cases recorded in the country
The Centre on Tuesday said the samples of all international passengers who arrived in India between 9 to 22 December and tested positive for the novel coronavirus will be sent for genome sequencing even as six who returned from the United Kingdom recently tested positive for the highly infectious strain.
The Union health ministry said that the UK variant genome of SARS-CoV-2 was detected in three samples in the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences Hospital (NIMHANS) Bengaluru, two in the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad and one in the National Institute of Virology (NIV) Pune.
The health ministry said that more Indian men were infected as well as died due to COVID-19 as compared to women in the county. Union Health secretary Rajesh Bhushan on Tuesday said that 63 percent of the total cases recorded in the country were among men while 70 percent of the deaths were among men.
India's coronavirus caseload on Tuesday rose to 1,02,24,303 with 16,432 new infections, the lowest in little over six months, while the toll increased to 1,48,153 with 252 new fatalities, as per the health ministry's morning update. The active cases have declined to 2,68,581 as on date and comprises 2.63 percent of the total caseload while recoveries have surged to 98,07,569, as per the ministry's data.
Six UK returnees test positive for new variant
The Union Health Ministry on Tuesday confirmed six cases of the new mutated UK strain of coronavirus. They all had returned to India from the United Kingdom.
All these people have been kept in single room isolation at designated health care facilities by respective state governments and their close contacts have also been put under quarantine, the ministry said.
Separately, Andhra Pradesh health Commissioner Katamaneni Bhaskar said a woman who returned to the state from the UK tested positive for the new strain but asserted that there was no trace of the variant spreading in the state.
Tamil Nadu Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan also said that one UK returnee has tested positive for the virus variant while Karnataka Health Minister K Sudhakar said three people in Bengaluru have tested positive for the new UK variant genome of SARS-CoV2.
The Union health ministry said that about 33,000 passengers who disembarked at various Indian airports from the UK from 25 November to the midnight of 23 December are being tracked and subjected by states and UTs to RT-PCR tests, and added that so far 114 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus infection.
These positive samples have been sent to 10 INSACOG labs (NIBMG Kolkata, ILS Bhubaneswar, NIV Pune, CCS Pune, CCMB Hyderabad, CDFD Hyderabad, InSTEM Bengaluru, NIMHANS Bengaluru, IGIB Delhi, NCDC Delhi) for genome sequencing, it said.
The health ministry has established the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) for laboratory and epidemiological surveillance and to expand the whole genome sequencing of the coronavirus in the country, furthering the understanding of how the virus spreads and evolves.
Ten regional laboratories have been identified by the Centre where states will send five percent of their COVID-19 positive samples for genome sequencing to detect the new coronavirus variant.
Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for Epidemiological Surveillance and Response in view of of new variant of SARS-CoV-2 has already been issued by the Health Ministry.
As per reports, the govt has mandated genome sequencing of the samples of all international passengers who arrived in India from 9 to 22 December and were symptomatic and tested positive for COVID-19.
State and district surveillance officers will follow up on other passengers, who will be tested as per ICMR guidelines, even if asymptomatic, between fifth and 10th day of arrival, the document stated.
India has banned flights from the UK till 31 December and Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Tuesday said that the suspension on UK flights was likely to be extended.
"In a day or two, we will find out if any additional steps need to be taken, or when we can start easing the current temporary suspension," he said.
Experts confident of vaccine efficacy as Indian variant N440K gathers steam
Amidst the rising cases of new UK strain in India, Niti Aayog Member (health) VK Paul said that the virus mutation was, in a way, expected, a report in The Hindu said.
Principal Scientific Advisor to the Centre, K Vijay Raghavan said so far it has not been found that the new variant increases the severity of the disease and there is no evidence to show that current vaccines will not work against it.
"Most vaccines do target the spike protein, in which there are changes in the variants but vaccines stimulate our immune system to produce a wide range of protective antibodies," he said.
However, Raghavan noted that the virus is more transmissible, is spreading more rapidly in the UK and taking over the frequency of other variants. "We must take extraordinary precautions to prevent these kinds of variants from dominating populations," he said.
"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," he said.
Raghavan urged people not to be complacent advised patience as the vaccine has to be rolled out steadily, beginning with priority groups and then to the rest of the country.
ICMR Director-General Balram Bhargava said genetic mutations may occur due to immune pressure on the virus, which may be related to the environment, to the host, treatment or other modalities.
"Therefore, it is important that we do not put too much immune pressure on the virus. If the benefit of any therapy is not well established, it should not be used as it would put tremendous immune pressure on the virus," he said.
It's important that we do not put too much immune pressure on virus. We've to maintain judicious use of therapies which are going to benefit. If benefit isn't established we shouldn't use those therapies otherwise it will put pressure on virus & it'll tend to mutate more: ICMR DG pic.twitter.com/eNKE7zb2TX
— ANI (@ANI) December 29, 2020
Bhargava also added that genetic mutations occur in the respiratory viruses but high transmissibility was a point of concern and added that "we are testing in India for virus variants regularly".
As per reports, at least 19 genetic variants of the SARS-CoV-2 in India have evolved to evade neutralising antibodies that the human immune system and one of these variants have already caused a confirmed case of reinfection in the country.
A team from CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB), New Delhi, Academy of Scientific and Innovative Research (AcSIR), CSIR-HRDC, Uttar Pradesh, and Kurnool Medical College in Andhra Pradesh identified 120 ‘immune escape variants’ in SARS-CoV-2 from across the globe, said a report by The Print.
The paper has been uploaded in a preprint server and yet to be peer-reviewed, said a Deccan Herald report. As per the report, a variant with a mutation named N440K has been found in nearly 34 percent of the 272 SARS-CoV-2 genomes analysed from Andhra Pradesh. The variant has also been seen in Karnataka, Maharashtra and Telangana. As per The Print, the S:N440K was found to be in 2.1 percent of the gene sequences in India.
In Tuesday's briefing, Paul said it is easier to suppress a new type of virus in the beginning when the spread is limited and urged urging people to remain vigilant and keep following COVID-appropriate behaviour.
As per news agency PTI, Paul said majority of the population is still susceptible to COVID-19 in the cold weather. "The UK variant has travelled to several other countries and also to India, this variant may have its own run and we have to very careful," Paul cautioned.
He further said the ICMR has decided to study the disease in all its aspects of severity and going beyond genome sequencing to study the behaviour of the virus.
The established strategy will continue and 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.
'Five states account for 60% of active cases'
Paul noted that 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.
Bhushan said the number of active cases COVID-19 cases has been registered at 2.7 lakhs after six months, and the cumulative positivity rate is at 6.02 percent while the positivity rate during last week was 2.25 percent.
"Five states and UTs which account for 60 percent of total active COVID-19 cases are Maharashtra, Kerala, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh," he said.
Giving a break-up on the basis of gender and age of those infected with the novel coronavirus, Bhushan said 63 percent of total cases in the country have been reported in males and 37 percent cases in females.
"Eight per cent cases have been reported below the age of 17 years, 13 per cent in the 18-25 years age group, 39 per cent in 26-44 years group, 26 per cent in 45-60 years group and 14 per cent above 60 years," he said.
Bhushan said 70 percent of COVID deaths have been reported in men and 45 percent fatalities have been reported in those below 60 years of age.
Vaccine dry run successful in four states
Meanwhile, a two-day dry run to assess the readiness of the mechanism laid out for the COVID-19 immunisation drive, which is expected to begin soon, was successfully conducted in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Punjab and Assam, the health ministry said.
The end-to-end exercise was undertaken in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, Rajkot and Gandhinagar of Gujarat, Ludhiana and Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar of Punjab, and Sonitpur and Nalbari districts of Assam on Monday and Tuesday.
Specific teams were formed for various tasks by the district administrations and activities like uploading of dummy beneficiary data, session site creation, vaccine allocation, communicating vaccination details to beneficiaries and vaccinators, and beneficiary mobilisation were carried out, the health ministry said.
Field feedback on the first day of the dry run was reviewed on 29 December through video conferencing with state and district programme officers by the joint secretary (Public Health).
Gujarat Immunisation Officer Dr Nayan Jani said 475 "beneficiaries" underwent dummy vaccination at various centres in Gandhinagar
and Rajkot districts, and added that as per feedback from the centres, everything went off smoothly.
In Punjab, Ludhiana deputy commissioner Varinder Kumar Sharma said that on a trial basis, 25 healthcare workers each, who had registered themselves on the Co-WIN portal were called at seven locations. He said during the dry run, the end-to-end testing of COVID-19 vaccination process was successfully tested. The dry run exercise was also successfully conducted in Nawanshahr district, Civil Surgeon Rajinder Prasad Bhatia said.
In Assam's Nalbari district, 125 health workers were administered dummy coronavirus vaccine in a mock drill held at five hospitals and health centres while in Sonitpur district, 25 frontline workers participated in the dry run at the Tezpur Urban Health Centre on Tuesday.
"All the states expressed satisfaction in terms of operational approach and use of IT platform to ensure transparency and effective monitoring of vaccination processes expected to cover a large number of people across the country. Additional suggestions on IT platform were also noted for further enhancement of Co-WIN platform. Detailed insights and feedback obtained will help enrich the operational guidelines and IT platform, and will strengthen the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out plan," the health ministry said.
According to the John Hopkins University's coronavirus tracker 1,778,266, coronavrius has infected 81,462,618 persons across the world and claimed 1,778,266 lives, with the US topping the list in terms of fatalities, followed by Brazil and India.
According to news agency AFP, Russia has admitted that its coronavirus toll was more than three times higher than it had previously reported, making it the country with the third-largest number of fatalities.
The Rosstat statistics agency said that the number of deaths from all causes recorded between January and November had risen by 229,700 compared to the previous year.
"More than 81 percent of this increase in mortality over this period is due to COVID-19," said Deputy Prime Minister Tatiana Golikova, meaning that over 1,86,000 Russians have died from COVID-19.
Meanwhile in China's Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus emerged a year ago, officials said emergency COVID-19 vaccination on some key groups has started, even as the country is yet to officially certify its multiple vaccines.
The vaccination, available at 48 designated clinics in 15 districts, began on 24 December, targeting certain groups of people aged between 18 and 59 years, He Zhenyu, deputy director of the centre for disease control and prevention in Wuhan, told the media in Wuhan. Those receiving the vaccine need to take two shots with an interval of four weeks, the state-run Xinhua news agency quoted He as saying.
With inputs from agencies
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