This strain, which has garnered considerable attention in global media, is called B.1.617.2.1 or AY.1 – Delta Plus for short, and is a version of the Delta variant first detected in India in February.
The Indian government said it submitted the variant to the Global Data System and sent samples for genomic testing.
About 200 cases have been identified in 11 countries. Health experts are investigating whether Delta Plus may be more transmissible than other strains like the Alpha or Delta variants – but it’s too early to say for sure what its effects may be.
Here’s what we know so far, and what questions are still unanswered.
How is Delta Plus different from the Delta variant?
All variants carry clusters of mutations. Delta Plus has an additional mutation called K417N, which sets it apart from the regular Delta variant. This mutation affects the spike protein, the part of the virus that attaches to the cells it infects.
The K417N mutation is not entirely new – it has “appeared independently in several viral lines,” said François Balloux, director of University College London (UCL) Genetics Institute.
“The mutation may contribute to immune evasion, although its impact on transmissibility is unclear,” he added.
All viruses are constantly mutating. Some of these changes improve the ability of viruses to infect cells or replicate themselves, while others have little effect or are even harmful to the virus.
To date, around 160 strains of the coronavirus have been sequenced around the world, Balloux said.
There are also “other Delta plus variants with other mutations,” the Indian government said on Wednesday, adding that AY.1 was only the best known.
Maria Van Kerkhove, World Health Organization technical officer on Covid-19, added that the team “is looking at these specific mutations and what they mean in terms of transmission, in terms of severity, and most importantly what that means in terms of our medical countermeasures. “
Is it more contagious or deadly?
According to the Indian government’s Covid-19 genome sequencing agency, the Delta Plus variant exhibits several disturbing traits such as increased transmissibility, stronger binding to lung cell receptors, and a potential reduction in antibody response.
Most coronavirus vaccines are designed to train the body to recognize the spike protein, or parts of it – where the extra Delta Plus mutation is located.
However, there is not yet enough evidence to determine anything conclusively and other experts have expressed their caution. On Wednesday, the Indian government said the role of the mutation in “immune evasion, disease severity or increased transmissibility, etc. is under continuous surveillance.”
For now, experts are widely warning the public and governments to remain vigilant but calm.
Besides the beta variant, none of the other strains carrying the K417N mutation “have been particularly successful so far,” Balloux said. “It has been found in several countries but has remained at an extremely low frequency… There is no evidence that the strain is currently developing in any country.”
Van Kerkhove of the WHO said the organization is monitoring Delta Plus to determine its transmissibility and severity.
Where was he found?
Delta Plus has been reported in 11 countries so far – but the number of cases per country only reflects samples that have been sequenced, and more data is needed to determine the actual rate of spread.
The UK is next, with 41 cases as of June 16. Improved contact tracing, testing and isolation have been rolled out in areas where Delta Plus has been reported, Downing Street confirmed Thursday.
The first cases sequenced in the UK were contacts of individuals who had traveled or transited through Nepal and Turkey, according to Public Health England.
India follows with 40 cases, the government said on Wednesday. The cases are spread across three states – Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. On Tuesday, India’s health ministry named it a “variant of concern” and put all three states on high alert.
The government said the number of cases was still low – but urged states with cases to “improve their public health response” by stepping up testing, tracing and priority vaccination.
The remaining cases are distributed among Canada, India, Japan, Nepal, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Switzerland and Turkey.
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