VUI-21APR-02 reclassified as ‘variant of concern’, says U.K. govt.

Move aimed at alerting health authorities all over the world to the threat the mutations on the variant pose

Public Health England (PHE) has declared a coronavirus variant, closely related to the Indian Variant (B.1.617) as a Variant of Concern. While such a labelling is specific to the United Kingdom as scientists there are seeing the variant making up a growing proportion of cases in the United Kingdom, it is more aimed at alerting health authorities all over the world to the threat the mutations on the variant pose to the future evolution of the pandemic.

Dr. Anurag Agrawal, Director , Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, told The Hindu that an advisory group in India, INSACOG (India SarsCOV Genome Consortium), concerned with the genome details of Indian coronavirus variants, too had classified B.1.617 and all its sub lineages as VOC.

“Following a rise in cases in the U.K. and evidence of community transmission, PHE has reclassified VUI-21APR-02 (B.1.617.2), classified as a Variant Under Investigation (VUI) on April 28 as a Variant of Concern (VOC), now known as VOC-21APR-02. This is based on evidence which suggests this variant, first detected in India, is at least as transmissible as B.1.1.7 (the Kent variant). The other characteristics of this variant are still being investigated,” the government authority said in a statement as part of its weekly updates on the coronavirus variants.

Insufficient evidence

“There is currently insufficient evidence to indicate that any of the variants recently detected in India cause more severe disease or render the vaccines currently deployed any less effective. PHE is carrying out laboratory testing, in collaboration with academic and international partners to better,” their statement further noted.

While there are several coronavirus variants identified as ‘variants of interest’, only a few such as the U.K. strain (B.1.1.7) or the South Africa variant (B.1.351) the Brazil variant (P.1) are globally considered VoCs because of their ability to rapidly spread globally, infect easily and pose a threat to the efficacy of existing vaccines as well as treatments.

The Indian variant, (B.1.617) also known as the ‘double mutant’ was characterised by two mutations L245R and E484Q in the spike protein of the coronavirus, the region that plays the most significant role in gaining entry into lung cells. However there are now at least 3 affiliated lineages: B.1.617.1, B.1.617.2 and B.1.617.3 and Health Ministry officials and experts warned this week that these lineages were becoming the dominant variants in India. India doesn’t yet officially classify B.1.617 as a VOC, though a scientist connected with India’s genome sequencing efforts told The Hindu that India’s Health Ministry may now classify it so. “B.1.617 should be a VOC but 617.2 doesn’t have E484Q whereas there are a whole set of other mutations in the spike protein in 617.2 that are helping it proliferate,” the person cited earlier added.

Shahid Jameel, virologist and head of an advisory committee to India’s genome consortium, said the U.K. naming a variant as a VOC could be seen as “request” by a country to the World Health Organisation (WHO) to classify a new variant as a VOC. “India too could have done so. This variant is rapidly rising in India and would likely promote efforts by other bodies to test the efficacy of our vaccines against the mutations in this lineage.”

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