As India reopens after a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections, virologists worry that another, potentially more virulent version of the virus could accelerate the onset of a third wave within a few months.
The version known locally as Delta Plus is described by scientists as a sub-line of the highly contagious Delta variant, which has quickly spread to India, the UK, the US, and other countries. The new variant carries a spike protein mutation that also occurs in the beta variant, which was first identified in South Africa and which virologists believe could make it more transmissible.
Reports suggest that cases of Delta Plus have been found in nearly a dozen countries, including the United States. In India, Delta Plus was first detected in April in the western state of Maharashtra. Authorities in India declared it a new “worrying variant” this week after finding more than 40 cases in three states: Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala.
The Indian Ministry of Health announced this week that Delta Plus has shown increased portability. States where the variant was found have been asked to step up testing, improve surveillance, and speed up contact tracing to try to prevent it from spreading.
Due to its recent discovery, studies of this particular variant have not yet been carried out, so scientists have limited information. However, they have begun to speculate about their ability to spread.
“It is most likely able to evade immunities,” said Shahid Jameel, virologist and director of the Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University in Sonipat, India. “That’s because it carries all of the symptoms of the original Delta variant as well as its partner beta variant.”
Indian Ministry of Health officials stressed that both Covid vaccines that are widely used in the country – the AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India and the Covaxin vaccine made by Indian company Bharat Biotech – are effective against variants, including Delta Plus.
Understand India’s Covid Crisis
India’s vaccination campaign picked up pace this week, with more than 6.7 million people vaccinated across the country on Thursday, according to official figures. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has stated that the syringes should be offered free to all adults in support of vaccination efforts that have been hampered by mismanagement and lack of care. About 5.5 percent of the population are fully vaccinated, and 18 percent have received at least one vaccination.
In Maharashtra, one of the hardest hit states, officials said Delta Plus was becoming a significant problem and warned that if cases increased, they would reintroduce restrictions.
“We are at the end of a second wave and will be careful how we unlock,” said Rajesh Tope, the country’s health minister. “The lessons we learned from dealing with the second wave are used to stop the spread of any new variant.”
Delta Plus was also identified this month by UK health officials calling it Delta-AY.1. They wrote in a June 11 report that they had discovered 36 cases, the first five of which were contacts from people who had recently traveled through Nepal and Turkey. Half of the 36 cases occurred in people who were not vaccinated and none of the cases resulted in death, but the report warned that “limited epidemiological information” was available about the variant.