New COVID variant detected in South Africa triggers alert in India

Healthcare workers inside COVID testing centre in Srinagar, Kashmir. [FPK File Photo/Zainab]

As scientists in South Africa detected a new COVID variant, the Health Ministry of India on Thursday directed states to rigorously screen and test travellers coming from or transiting through three countries in which the variant had been confirmed.

The countries are South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong and the variant, according to reports, with a large number of mutations is responsible for a surge in infections.

In a communication to all states and Union Territories, India’s Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said India’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has informed the government that “multiple cases of a Covid-19 variant B.1.1529 have been reported in Botswana (3 cases), South Africa (6 cases) and Hong Kong (1 case)”.

“This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country, in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel,” Bhushan said.

“lt is therefore imperative that ALL international travellers travelling from and transiting through these countries, (they are part of the “at risk” Country Category of international travellers coming to lndia)…are subjected to rigorous screening and testing”, the communication said.

“The contacts of these international travellers must also be closely tracked and tested as per MoHFW guidelines.”

Following Bhushan’s direction, all states will have to send samples from Covid-positive travellers to designated labs of the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Sequencing Consortium (INSACOG), which tracks and monitors the emergence and transmission of variants of concern and variants of interest in India.

COVID surveillance officers in the states will have to coordinate with INSACOG labs, and will have to undertake test-track-treat to prevent the spread of the variant and the formation of case clusters.

Of the four variants of concern currently designated by the World Health Organisation, Beta (Pango lineage B.1.351), was first detected in South Africa in May 2020. The other three VoCs, Alpha (B.1.1.7), Delta (B.1.617.2), and Gamma (P.1) were first detected in the United Kingom, India, and Brazil in September 2020, October 2020, and November 2020 respectively.

“Twenty-two positive cases of variant B.1.1.529 have been recorded in the country following genomic sequencing collaborations between the NICD and private laboratories.

In addition, other NGS-SA laboratories are confirming more cases as sequencing results come out,” South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a statement on Thursday.


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