It was last week that the severity of virus infection and the number of patients was found to have increased in London southeastern parts of England. In laboratory tests that followed, it was found to be of a new variant of the virus, logically as a result of mutations. And on December 14, British health secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that the cause of the surge in the disease was a new variant of the corona virus and that the government has apprised the World Health Organisation of the situation.
Through certain modeling employed with the available data, it was judged that the new variant has 70 per cent higher contagious nature than the previous virus. However, this is not a fact proven through scientific trials. According to the preliminary study of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the new variant carries more transmissibility – although with a lower percentage than other studies - than its predecessor. At any rate, based on experience so far, it is too early to determine that the severity of the disease or its transmissibility is alarmingly higher; so is the case with possibility of international spread.
There is no evidence so far, however, for an assumption about a threat to the efficacy of the two vaccine candidates that have won approval for emergency use so far (of Pfizer and Moderna), or the other vaccine candidates in the final stages of trials. But viruses being always subject to mutations, the vaccines may then need subtle tweaking. It may also need follow up testing among those who have already received the vaccine. And as per the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK), this will mostly happen through the same patient being affected by virus infection for a longer time. All the imponderables set side, the bottom-line is that a probably more transmissible virus variant has entered the matrix of disease spread and vaccine development. That underlines the need for, as much as laboratory contributions, non-pharmaceutical precautions and stresses the case for social preventive and control measures.
Up until 13 December, public health authorities in the UK were able to detect the presence of a new variant in 1,108 cases. In India, Health Secretary, Rajesh Bhushan has informed that the new strain of the corona virus had not been detected in the country and in the current situation there is no cause for panic, but only for vigilance. However, reports came in later that several passengers who arrived in India from Britain, via other airports, had tested positive and therefore put under strict isolation. Further, WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan has also remarked that the existing vaccines have the potential to be efficacious against the new strain too.
A related social fallout is that when countries take restrictive and precautionary action in view of the prospect of disease spread, and international flights get suspended, Indians working and living abroad will be hit by the travel stalemate. The aviation disruption experienced by thousands at the start of the Covid pandemic is still in people's memory. Subsequently, to and fro travel was restored after a major effort at different levels, much to the relief of Indians, especially those resident in the Gulf countries. In the current situation, Saudi, Oman and Kuwait have suspended all inbound and outbound flights, and many are already stranded in originating or transit stations. Thus there is cause for apprehension that other Gulf countries may follow suit, thereby disrupting even essential travel plans of the diaspora. In such a scenario, governments will have constraints in making relaxations and even in showing humanitarian consideration. It is hoped that based on available scientific guidance, governments will put in place reasonable mechanisms to address people's possible woes. It is also upto the citizens to foresee disruptions and take appropriate practical steps to face the hurdles.