India's next big challenge: The 'Triple mutant' COVID virus

Changing genetic structure to new strain
A third mutation in the B.1.167 has been identified now and experts believe that this time, it will be taken seriously.

As cases in India reached a record high of 2.94 lakh cases in the last 24 hours, a triple mutation virus has surfaced in parts of India.

After a double mutated variant led the surge in cases in many parts of the country, this triple variant has befuddled many epidemiologists.

Two of the triple-mutant varieties have been found in samples collected from Maharashtra, Delhi, West Bengal and Chhattisgarh.

What is a triple mutation and when was it detected?

A virus mutates or changes its nature when it keeps on spreading and replicating itself in new hosts.

Three COVID variants have merged to form a new COVID variant.

The double mutant strain of coronavirus that many experts say is behind the recent rapid surge of second COVID wave was first detected in October 5 last year through genome sequencing of a virus sample.

A report in the Indian Express said that since both the mutations, E484Q and L425R, were located in the virus’s critical spike protein — that binds it to the receptor cells in the body. The destructive potential of the mutant should have raised red flags and led to widespread gene surveillance to look for its spread.

However, the slow pace of the genome sequencing exercise got further slowed down between November and January due to lack of funds, absence of clear directives and disinterest because of the falling COVID curve.

The report said that a third mutation in the B.1.167 has been identified now and experts are hoping that this time the pace of intervention and follow-up picks up.

How important is genome sequencing and why India is lagging behind?

Genome sequencing, the study of genetic structures of an organism and the changes happening in it, give information about the virus’ origins, routes taken to reach a particular area and the changes, or mutations, that are making the virus stronger or weaker.

India, in the first six months, barely conducted a few hundred genome sequencing, while other countries like China, the UK and US, had done several thousand and submitted these in public global depositories for scientists across the world to study.

“The whole point of gene sequencing is to remain ahead of the curve, anticipate what new variants of the virus are likely to emerge, how they are likely to behave, and what can be done to contain their spread in the population. More the sequences, greater is our information about them, and more effective our response can be,” a scientist associated with the sequencing effort reportedly said.

“Unfortunately, India has been well behind the curve on this front. We have been reacting to the developments, instead of anticipating it,” he added.

Gene sequencing is time-consuming and costly as it can take three to five days to develop one sequence. A few government laboratories have been doing the gene sequencing work, which involves a huge amount of computer processing time. Moreover, developing one sequence can cost between Rs 3-5000.

The report quoted multiple sources saying that the Health Ministry was last week briefed about the possibility of this double mutant variant developing another significant mutation and becoming a “triple-mutant.” It added that three different varieties have been detected.

Will our existing vaccines work against this variant?

Reportedly, two of the three variants are more resistant to antibodies. Whether the transmissibility rate of this variant is higher is not known as of yet. The triple mutant has been classified as a "variant of interest."