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The World Health Organization (WHO) has branded the Indian coronavirus variant as being of global concern

The World Health Organization (WHO) has branded the Indian coronavirus variant as being of global concern.

There is enough data to suggest the mutated strain – officially known as B.1.617.2 – is more infectious than previous versions of the virus, according to the global body.

It makes B.1.617.2 the fourth Covid strain to be classed by the WHO as a ‘variant of global concern’, after those that emerged in Kent, South Africa and Brazil.

England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, went a step further last night, claiming the Indian variant could be the most transmissible strain in the world.

Cases of B.1.617.2 have risen ten-fold in Britain in a month and the variant is already making up between 40 per cent and half of all cases detected in London. 

The strain first emerged in India last autumn but for reasons scientists are still trying to work out, it only took off this year.It is partly behind India’s raging second wave, where there are now 4,000 Covid victims per day and hundreds of thousands of infections.

Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock said this morning the variant was the single ‘biggest risk’ to the UK’s lockdown easing plans. There is still no evidence it will cause worse disease or make vaccines less effective.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid, told a briefing last night: ‘We are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level.There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility.’  

Public Health England classes the strain as a variant of concern but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has dubbed it a ‘variant of interest’ — a less urgent designation.

Globally, one of the three sublineages of the variant that merged in India now accounts for an estimated 5% of all cases, according to data.The entire set of B.1.617 variant sublineages (of which there are three) has been classified a ‘variant of concern’ by the WHO 

As of Monday, 75% of sequences tested in India for the presence of the B.1.617 mutations were positive, according to 

Public Health England has divided the Indian variant into three sub-types.Type 1 and Type 3 both have a mutation called E484Q but Type 2 is missing this, despite still clearly being a descendant of the original Indian strain. Type 1 and 3 have a slightly different set of mutations. The graphic shows all the different variants that have been spotted in Britain

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid, told a briefing last night: ‘We are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level.There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility’

Asked about the Indian variant this morning during a round of interviews, Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast: ‘There is no doubt that a new variant is the biggest risk. 

‘We have this variant that was first seen in India – the so-called Indian variant – we have seen that grow.

‘We are putting a lot of resources into tackling it to make sure everybody who gets that particular variant gets extra support and intervention to make sure that it isn’t passed on.

‘However, there is also, thankfully, no evidence that the vaccine doesn’t work against it.’

It comes as India is pummeled by its deadliest wave of Covid, with nearly 4,000 people dying a day, and hundreds of thousands of people testing positive every 24 hours.Both figures are assumed to be undercounts.  

Often labelled a ‘double mutant,’ the strain carries mutations to two parts of its spike protein that help it latch onto human cells.

B.1.617 has split into three related sublineages that together account for roughly than 75 per cent of cases in India, and a little more than one per cent of US cases. 

But the variant of most concern, type 2, doesn’t have a certain mutation thought to help the virus evade antibodies. 

Indian coronavirus infections and deaths held close to record daily highs on Monday, increasing calls for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lock down the world’s second-most populous country.

The WHO has said the predominant lineage of B.1.617 was first identified in India in December, although an earlier version was spotted in October 2020.

The variant has already spread to other countries, and many nations have moved to cut or restrict movements from India.

American health officials dubbed B.1.617 a ‘variant of interest’ last week, due to its worrisome mutations. 

However, the CDC’s variant tracking site does include data on B.1.617, suggesting it accounts for just a fraction of a percent of all U.S.cases. 

But according to, which track the result of global genetic sequencing – a test performed to see what mutations a viral sample contains – suggest that about two percent of U.S. samples tested Monday were positive for B.1.617.2’s mutations.  

Sublineage B.1.617.2 is the most common of B.1.617’s deviations.It’s still rare in the U.S, but rising. As of Monday, about 2% of samples tested were positive for its mutations 

B.1.617.2 is one of three sublineages of the variant, and seems to be the most common one, though it is not clear if or why some of the variant’s derivations might be more infectious or vaccine-resistant than others.  

Dr Van Kerkhove said more information about the variant and its three sub-lineages would be made available on Tuesday.

‘Even though there is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies, we need much more information about this virus variant and this lineage and all of the sub-lineages,’ she said.

Vohra’s death comes as India’s hospitals, morgues and crematoria are struggling to cope with a crippling second wave of coronavirus infections and deaths

Oxygen shortages are rife throughout the India, which this month has recorded more than 300,000 new infections each day

Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, said studies were under way in India to examine the variant’s transmissibility, the severity of disease it causes and the response of antibodies in people who have been vaccinated.

‘What we know now is that the vaccines work, the diagnostics work, the same treatments that are used for the regular virus works, so there is really no need to change any of those,’ Swaminathan said.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the WHO Foundation was launching a ‘Together for India’ appeal to raise funds to purchase oxygen, medicines and protective equipment for health workers. 

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