The B.1.617 coronavirus variant that is currently wreaking havoc in India has made its way to the United States. Experts believe it is unlikely to cause significant harm in the United States due to high vaccination rates and a healthy health-care system. However, with the virus defying expectations and the variant infecting hundreds of thousands of Indians every day, researchers are keeping a close eye on it.
It first appeared in India, where it is thought to have contributed to that country’s devastating second COVID-19 wave. The World Health Organization labeled it a “variant of concern” last week due to concerns that it could be more contagious and evade existing vaccines.
It is sometimes referred to as a “double mutant” because it contains twice as many mutations as some earlier variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. At first, there was concern that this would make it even more dangerous. “The good news is that this does not seem to be the case. It was no worse to have both mutations than to have just one “Dr. Charles Chiu, a professor and viral genomics expert at the University of California, San Francisco, agreed.
The United States is one of 49 countries where the variant has spread, but it is still at low levels. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the B.1.617 variant accounted for 3% of all COVID-19 cases in the United States as of May 8. It appears to outcompete the B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom, at least in India, according to Dr. Krutika Kuppalli, an infectious disease specialist at the Medical University of South Carolina and a fellow of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. B.1.1.7 is now responsible for 72 percent of COVID-19 infections in the United States.
Because the variant is so new, there isn’t a lot of solid, real-world data. It is certainly spreading quickly in India, but the country is only 11 percent vaccinated, with most people receiving only the first dose of vaccine. It’s impossible to say, but given the high rate of vaccination in this area, it appears unlikely that it will replace the current dominant B.1.1.7 strain. With nearly 47 percent of Americans at least partially vaccinated, it will be more difficult for a new strain to take over. “We have high levels of community immunization, so it has less room to grow,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco.
They appear to be effective. Blood samples from previously infected or vaccinated people were only one-seventh as effective against the B.1.617 variant as against the original virus, but that is thought to be enough to be protective, particularly against severe disease and hospitalization, according to Mehul Suthar, an Emory University virologist who co-wrote a paper on the variant published May 10 but not yet peer-reviewed.
Because the vaccine’s effectiveness has decreased, more people will need to be vaccinated to provide the same level of population protection, according to Suthar.
“This confidence encouraged the government to relax efforts such as masking, distancing, and avoiding crowds,” she explained. “With the relaxation of public health measures, population density, and socioeconomic issues, the groundwork was laid for the spread of these infections.” Another major challenge, according to Kasisomayajula Viswanath, a professor of health communication at Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, has been the spread of misinformation via social media, primarily about folk remedies to ward off COVID-19.
According to Viswanath, 170 million Indians have been vaccinated once, but only 13 million have been fully vaccinated in a country of 1.3 billion people. Even if enough vaccines were available, he believes it will take a long time for enough people to be vaccinated to help reduce infection rates.