Covid-19 throws up a new challenge
New variants of the coronavirus have spread in India, particularly in Maharashtra and Punjab. The two states have recorded some of the sharpest increase in cases over the last month, with Maharashtra contributing more than half the new cases recorded across the country daily. Health authorities have held off on concluding that the variants are responsible for the surge, but experts believe a correlation is likely, given what the world knows about Sars-CoV-2 mutations. In several countries, most notably in the United Kingdom (UK), at the outset of winter last year, a variant set off a runaway outbreak — not unlike what appears to be building in India at the moment.
A variant of the Sars-Cov-2 arises when the pathogen picks up multiple changes in its genome. It is natural for viruses to mutate when they replicate as they spread within a population. Molecular clock calculation estimated that the Sars-Cov-2 picked up two mutations on average every month. But the virus also picks up a combination of mutations that could change how it affects individuals — it can become less or more infective or lethal. In August, scientists in Singapore said they found a mutation that was milder — but in line with laws of evolution, it was overtaken by variants that were “fitter” in spreading. In mid-November, the first such significantly fitter variant arose in the UK, triggering a wave that the country took months to surmount. Scientists believe this sort of evolution will become a large part of the new normal.
But science has also given us the tools that make adapting to this new normal possible. The process begins with identifying these mutations, their behaviour and prevalence. Thanks to global scientific collaboration, the first two are relatively easy to determine. It is the third aspect — determining how far a variant has spread and its containment — that is particularly difficult. This will require the government to step up genome surveillance; pharmaceutical companies to double down on vaccine production (and perhaps even come up with more resilient doses); and citizens to arm themselves with the two tools that can stop the virus, no matter what the variant — vaccines and appropriate behaviour.