Mumbai: India will expand surveillance of gene sequencing for new lineages of SARS-CoV-2 from across the country as it looks to tackle a more infectious strain of the virus found in several countries including the United Kingdom, South Africa, Denmark and Brazil.
“We have been maintaining some surveillance at viral genome level already,” Anurag Agrawal, director of CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, said. “Given the international developments, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and the Department of Biotechnology will plan an expansion of the scale of such surveillance,” he told ET in an email response. “This is an ongoing process that will simply be scaled up as required.”
The Union health ministry is also considering sequencing the genes of all those who came into the country from the UK and tested positive for Covid-19 in the past four weeks, people aware of the development told ET.
This comes after the UK announced that the new lineage of the virus called B.1.1.7 is 70% more infectious than the previous strains, leading to several countries, including India, to impose a travel ban to and from the UK.
This strain has not been seen yet in India among the more than 4,000 viral sequencing deposited in the country and other recent undeposited sequences, Agrawal said.
He said mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 were always expected. Also, while it may be spreading faster, based on UK data, so far there is not increased severity or death.
Yet there are concerns about the new strain. “Given that India has already had extensive spread, with finally cases starting to decline, this is somewhat worrisome,” Agrawal said. “However, nothing very serious.”
Vinod Scaria, principal scientist at CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, said the UK was able to find the new mutation because it has repositories of more than half of all the coronavirus genomes. “So, it is a massive scale genome surveillance mechanism, which covers all territories on a regular basis. No other country has been able to put this on a massive scale,” he told ET.
Now, scientists have called for a nationwide surveillance mechanism where state governments put in place gene sequencing programmes that can give an indication on the emerging mutations and help in policymaking. “It is possible to do this,” Scaria said.
Gene experts studying SARS-CoV-2 said different lineages of the virus have been found in the last few months in countries such as Australia and Denmark.
The B.1.1.7 strain seems to have recently emerged independently in three different countries.
What has got scientists intrigued is that this particular variation of the gene has emerged in the receptor binding domain of the virus. This is the region of the ‘spike’ protein that recognises the human receptors to gain entry into cells that leads to infection.
Now, this domain is also the place where antibodies are formed to fight any pathogens. Hence the concern whether this mutation in the spike protein area would impact vaccine development.
There is still no evidence to show that it would, according to experts that ET spoke with.
A senior gene expert in the country said that while India does not have this new variant yet, but “it is possible that this specific gene has entered India”.
“But until you have a surveillance system in the country that regularly does gene sequencing you will not be able to figure it out,” said the expert who did not wish to be named.
This person also said India has not done a large number of genome sequencing, and in the last few months the number of genomes has also been low.
Kerala is one of the states that started a genome sequencing programme in 14 districts. This helped scientists conclude that new infections in the state were not due to international travellers as previously assumed, but due to intra-state clusters.