The Government of India has formally acknowledged the occurrence of AY.1, a coronavirus variant that is closely related to the prevailing Delta variant.
First identified in India, the delta variant has been already detected in 74 countries and continues to spread rapidly amid fears that it is poised to become the dominant strain worldwide. Novel coronaviruses are marked by ‘convergent evolution’. A few defining mutations that emerge in different strains from around the globe start to become more common in subsequent variants.
As per Dr. V.K. Paul, Chairman, National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration of COVID-19, AY.1 was first identified in March in Europe but brought into the public domain only two days ago.
For now, the government has said it’s not yet a variant of concern, or one which has adverse consequences to humanity. However, Dr. Paul underlined that not much is known about it but “we are studying it, including the prevalence in India.” So far, it has been found in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka.
Mutation of the viruses is a biological fact and the steps to protect against its exposure must remain the same for all including the novel coronavirus. As has been rightly pointed out by Dr. Paul, it should not be given opportunities to spread.
The call by the experts should be given heed and one well-known reason for multiple waves is the mutation in the genetic code of the coronavirus. Slow vaccination pace gives it more time to mutate and find ways to evade or trick antibodies. This accelerates the appearance of new variants as the continued spread of the virus allows it to get trained to detect and bypass antibodies, since the immune system merely looks out for the original strain.
Whether or not SARS-CoV-2 becomes a part of the human ecosystem marked by being less contagious amid vaccination and use of masks, lockdowns, remains unknown and difficult to predict. However, unlike pandemics of the past, in the present times, there is presence of rapid genome sequencing. There is already infrastructure and the resources to track threatening mutations and as such it should be a continuous process to find and explore. Authorities in Jammu and Kashmir are better advised to see if the new variant has already permeated and takes steps to arrest its spread. Otherwise it would get a free run and may be too late to confront. Lack of preparedness proved deleterious in the past and as such it is important not to downplay the seriousness of the threat and remain prepared.