Researchers at Stanford University’s Clinical Virology Laboratory confirmed one case last week and have seven presumed cases that are being screened.
The variant, which has been called a ‘double mutant’ by India’s Ministry of Health, has two mutations on parts of the virus that help it hook onto our cells.
Although there is no evidence yet to suggest that the strain evades vaccines more easily, public health experts say the mutations could allow the virus to spread more readily in communities and cause plateauing case numbers in the U.S. to rise significantly.
Researchers at Stanford University confirmed what is believed to be the first U.S. case of a coronavirus variant that emerged in India (dark purple dot)
Indian authorities have referred to the variant as a ‘double mutant’ because it has two mutations on parts of the virus that help it hook onto our cells. There are seven more presumed cases in California (above)
The variant was first discovered in the Maharashtra state, which is the second most-populous state in India and where Mumbai is located.
Cases has been plummeting since September, but began spiking last month with a 50 percent increase in cases in the last week alone.
It was due to sequencing such a high number of cases that the county’s Health Ministry was able to identify the variant.
In a statement, officials said the variant was linked to between 15 to 20 percent of samples sequenced from Maharashtra state.
‘This is another example where a variant is getting known by the country where it was discovered,’ Dr Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, told DailyMail.com.
‘India was doing enough surveillance to recognize the presence of this variant and any place that does so, it should be kudos to them, not an indictment that a variant is detected in a given place.’
The variant was linked to between 15% and 20% of samples sequenced from India’s Maharashtra state, which has seen a 50% spike in cases in the last week. Pictured: A healthcare worker tests a man for COVID-19 in Mumbai, India, April 5
Indian health authorities have labeled the variant a ‘double mutant’ because it carries two mutations: L452R and E484Q.
L452R is the same mutation seen with the California homegrown variant and E484Q is similar to the mutation seen in the Brazilian and South African variants.
Both of the mutations occur on key parts of the virus that allows it to enter and infect human cells.
‘It has the worst of two very bad mutations out there and that’s a big concern,’ Dr Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist with the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told DailyMail.com.
Mokdad said the variant could be both more infectious variant like the California variant and an ‘escape variant’ like those from Brazil and South Africa, making vaccines less effective.
‘This variant…it raises the concern that this could evade neutralizing antibody responses that people have developed either from prior infection or from vaccination,’ Ray said.
‘That would give the virus, with those changes, an advantage in spreading in the community, even that if there is some immunity. This the worry all of us have.’
Both Mokdad and Dr Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine and infectious disease specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, said that in a hypothetical situation, if a person with the Indian variant is in an elevator with an unvaccinated person, the risk of infection is higher.
‘Because [the variant] has the same superpower as some of these other variants,’ Chin-Hong told DailyMail.com.
‘As SARS-CoV-2 involves, it’s kind of sticking with the increased transmission superpower because that’s kind of like how it survives.’
Mokdad added: ‘If you are in the company of a group of people and one of them has it, you are at a higher risk of catching it than if that person has an old variant.’
Chin-Hong notes that the variant hasn’t taken off yet in other parts of India aside from the Maharashtra state, so it seems to act like a regional variant for now.
‘It’s like the story of the California variant, where it’s so common in California, like 50 percent in the north, but hasn’t really taken off across the U.S.,’ he said.
It is too early to know if the variant can cause reinfection or is more resistant to antibodies that are developed from vaccines.
But Ray encourages people to keep getting vaccinated, as the mass immunization effort in the U.S. continues to ramp up, because evidence has shown that vaccines still prevent severe illness and death when people are infected with variants.
He says that even though mutations may have an impact on neutralizing antibodies, vaccines also stimulate T-cells, which are white blood cells that bind to and kill viruses.
‘These T-cells don’t depend on neutralizing antibodies, they target segments of the [spike] proteins at other sites that would be unaffected by these mutations,’ Ray said.
‘We’re developing complex immune responses to these vaccines and the complexity of those vaccines likely provide us some protection, even when we lose components of that response.’
Dr Stuart Ray from Johns Hopkins encourages people to still continue getting vaccinated because evidence has shown that vaccines can prevent severe illness and death if infected with coronavirus variants, as 32% of the U.S. has received at least one dose
While it is too early to say whether this variant will alter the course of the pandemic, Ray says it’s important to have a well-developed surveillance program to keep track of variants, or stay ahead of them.
He points out that Johns Hopkins University sequences every positive coronavirus test that has enough genetic material to do so.
This results in more than 10 percent of all positive tests being sequenced.
There is a general sense that that level of sequencing helps for what is becoming prevalent in the population,’ Ray said.
‘If we provide support for programs that do molecular surveillance, if we enable the systems that collect those data to be integrated in a way that allows us to keep a barometer f what’s spreading more rapidly….those things will help us have a handle on how the virus evolution is altering the pandemic.’