Why do new variants of Covid-19 keep appearing? Laura Foster explains

India has classified a new variant of the coronavirus first identified in Europe as a “variant of concern”, but it’s too early to tell whether it poses a significant threat.

India’s health ministry says studies showed that the so-called Delta plus variant – also known as AY.1 – spreads more easily, binds more easily to lung cells and is potentially resistant to monoclonal antibody therapy, a potent intravenous infusion of antibodies to neutralise the virus.

The variant is related to the Delta, an existing variant of concern, which was first identified in India last year and is thought to have driven the deadly second wave of infections this summer in India.

The health ministry says the Delta plus variant, first found in India in April, has been detected in around 40 samples from six districts in three states – Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh. At least 16 of these samples were found in Maharashtra, one of the states hardest hit by the pandemic.

Delta plus has also been found in nine other countries – USA, UK, Portugal, Switzerland, Japan, Poland, Nepal, Russia and China – compared to the original highly contagious Delta strain, which has now spread to 80 countries.

“You need to study a few hundred patients who are sick with this condition and variant and find out whether they are at greater risk of greater disease than the ancestral variant,” Dr Kang said.

The Delta plus variant contains an additional mutation called K417N on the coronavirus spike, which has been found in the Beta and Gamma variants, first found in South Africa and Brazil respectively (Beta was linked to increased hospitalisation and deaths during South Africa’s first wave of infections, while Gamma was estimated to be highly transmissible).

Even with 166 examples of Delta plus shared on GISAID, a global open sharing database, “we don’t have much reason to believe this is any more dangerous than the original Delta,” according to Dr Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport.

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