India is struggling to keep a rampant new wave of COVID-19 in check, which is spreading across the country with record speed and leaving its healthcare infrastructure crippled in its wake. India crossed the 300,000 daily cases-mark on Thursday, with hospitals facing an acute shortage in ICU beds and medical oxygen supply. A question many experts are asking is if the surge in cases is caused by a mutated variant of the coronavirus – the B.1.617. 

The variant has been reported in many other countries, including the United States, Australia, Israel, Singapore, among others, AFP reported. 

Here’s all we know about the virus so far:

– The SARS-CoV-2 virus has already undergone thousands of mutations, with a few of those variants more of a cause for concern than others. 

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– India first reported the B.1.617 variant to the GISAID, a global database, in October. The variant has also been detected in 18 other countries as of this month, according to GISAID.

– B.1.617 has been termed as a “variant of interest” by the World Health Organisation. Other variants, detected in Brazil, South Africa and the UK, have been categorised as “of concern” because they are more transmissible and virulent. 

– The Ministry of Health had flagged the variant in late March, saying it appeared in 15-20% of samples analysed from the worst-hit state Maharashtra. More recently, the figure was 60%.

–  B.1.617 has several mutations, including two notable ones (E484Q and L452R), leading to it sometimes being called the “double mutant”.

– The first notable mutation is similar to another (E484K or sometimes nicknamed “Eek”) observed in the South African, Brazilian, and more recently, the UK variants.

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– The “Eek” has been dubbed an “escape mutation” as it helps the virus get past the body’s immune system.

– The other notable mutation was found by a Californian study to be an efficient spreader.

– Scientists say more evidence is needed to determine if these mutations make the B.1.617 variant more dangerous.

– Rakesh Mishra, director of the Hyderabad-based Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, is one of the scientists currently analysing the B.1.617 variant.

– So far, he says it has been “better in terms of spreading compared to other variants”. “Slowly it will become the more common one and it will replace the other variants,” he told AFP. Scientists were testing vaccine efficacy against the variant, he added.

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– It is not yet known, however, if India’s current wave is linked to this variant, or if it is being driven by human behaviour or something else.

– Health experts have raised “super spreader” concerns over recent huge religious festivals and political rallies with mostly maskless crowds.

– Still, several countries are taking no chances with B.1.617. When it banned travel from India this week, the UK specifically cited fears of the new variant.

– The United States on Wednesday also advised against travel to India, noting that “even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk for getting and spreading COVID-19 variants”.

– One of the mutations is related to “Eek”, which is suspected of reducing antibody protection from a previous infection or vaccination, said University of Utah evolutionary virology researcher, Stephen Goldstein.

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– Goldstein pointed to the UK’s success at turning around a recent outbreak despite the presence of a more transmissible variant. “It can be quite onerous, but it can be done,” he told AFP. “I think the vaccination campaign certainly helped… but it’s the lockdown that enabled them to slow the rise of cases and start to turn the corner.”

– Even so, experts say vaccines still offer some protection, particularly from severe cases.

– Since more variants emerge when there are more infected hosts, Mishra said India needs to get its outbreak under control.

– Another variant, the B.1.618, recently raised red flags when it became the third-most detected in India.