Scientists have red-flagged a new coronavirus variant — B.1.1.529, officially named ‘Omicron’ by WHO — due to an alarmingly high number of mutations, fearing that the virus will become more resistant to vaccines, increase transmissibility, and cause more severe symptoms as a result of the heavy mutations. The variation has 50 mutations in total, with more than 30 of them occurring in the spike protein alone.
Virus with “heavy mutations” doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be lethal, but there is high need for vigilance, ICMR scientist Dr Samiran Panda.
According to Panda, who is head of Epidemiology Department at the country’s apex health research institute, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), explained that it is not the number of mutations that makes a virus more transmissible or virulent. Rather, it is the structure function relationship that comes into play.
“The multiple mutations in the virus may not necessarily make the virus fit and lock into human cells,” he said, adding that “structural changes due to the heavy mutations may impact the virus negatively by impacting its attachment with the human cells.”
Multiple mutations may interfere with the virus’s receptor-binding domain structure, reducing the virus’s ability to interact with human cells. It may, however, provide a benefit to the virus.
“It should also be noted that at times mutations impart some advantage to a viral variant and make it more transmission efficient as we witnessed in delta,” he added. “As a virus is dependent on a living host for its transmission, a fatal mutant is very unlikely to remain transmissible for long as its host will not remain alive to transmit the virus.”
The newly emerging variant is being studied by the World Health Authority (WHO) to examine if it is causing clustering of infections or more severe disease.
On Thursday, the Union Health Ministry called for rigorous screening of passengers coming from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, as well as their contacts.
No such variant has been observed in India so far. “While INSACOG is monitoring the genomic variations in the SARS-CoV-2 by a sentinel sequencing effort, more vigilant screening is being put in place in view of the recent international development with regard to the newly emerging variant of the virus,” he said.
The virus is the same but it is mutating, the scientist insists while adding that it has not changed its strategy to spread from one host to another. “Hence, the set of precautions and prevention measures that breaks the chain of transmission of Covid-19 remains the same.”
Panda said that the variant should not be linked to any country name as it leads to stigmatisation. “We should always refer to a variant of the virus by its scientific name or nomenclature code. It should never be linked to a country where it is reported first, which is merely a function of detection ability and has got nothing to do with the origin of a mutant.”