COVID variant in India could be highly contagious, warns WHO

A Crematorium in Simapuri, Delhi.

New Delhi: Amid a steep rise in COVID cases In India, a virus variant that has been spreading rapidly in India and designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO) might be more contagious than most versions of the coronavirus, the agency said.

The WHO emphasized in its report that it wasn’t yet clear how much the variant, known as B.1.617, had contributed to the devastating surge that has crushed India in recent weeks. It cautioned that India, like many countries, is only sequencing a tiny fraction of positive samples, and that with so little surveillance, it’s difficult to reach any firm conclusions about B.1.617.

The WHO study comes amid calls for nationwide restrictions in India to try to limit the death toll, as hospitals are overrun and crematories burn nonstop. Experts also caution that it is not yet clear just how much of a factor B.1.617 has played in the explosion of cases in India. They point to a perfect storm of public health blunders, such as permitting enormous political rallies and religious festivals in recent months. It is possible that the variant is being lifted up by the surge, rather than the other way around.

The WHO speculated that another variant is known as B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain and now dominant in the US, might also be driving the swell in cases. It’s not yet clear whether B.1.617 causes more severe COVID. But until more genetic sequencing is done, it is impossible to know if the variant is to blame.


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