On Wednesday, a variant of the COVID-19 virus that appears to be wreaking havoc in India was detected in Canada, but experts say it’s too early to tell how dangerous this new version of the COVID-19 virus is. The World Health Organization has classified the variant, known as B.1.617, as a “variant of interest” rather than a “variant of concern,” as is the case with variants discovered in the United Kingdom, Brazil, and South Africa.
Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa, says a variant of interest is one that is “suspected” to be more contagious than the original strain, cause more severe disease, or evade vaccine protection. If more evidence emerges that it does one or more of those things, a variant of interest can become a variant of concern, he added.
According to Deonandan, the variant first discovered in India appears to be responsible for roughly 60% of cases in the country’s most populous region, indicating a higher transmissibility. However, he stated that scientists are still unsure whether the variant’s mutations cause more severe disease.
The variant has a double mutation in the spike protein gene, which is targeted by our current COVID-19 vaccines. However, experts say there is still no concrete evidence that approved vaccines will not protect against it. While some have dubbed the variant a “double mutant,” an infectious disease expert at McMaster University says the term is a misnomer that conjures up images of a super virus.
Earlier variants of concern, according to Dr. Zain Chagla, do not have a single mutation, but rather a set of them that change the virus in specific ways. He explained that having two mutations on the spike protein does not necessarily make the variant more dangerous than having a single mutation on that gene.
The variant was discovered late last year, and while genomic sequencing indicates that it is the dominant strain in India, the Indian government has yet to confirm this.
On Wednesday alone, India recorded nearly 300,000 new cases of COVID-19, with 2,000 more deaths linked to the virus.