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1,189 samples have tested positive for variants of concern of SARS COV-2 in India: Health ministry

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New Delhi: A total of 1,189 samples have so far tested positive for variants of concern of SARS COV-2 in India, the health ministry said on Friday as the country is witnessing a steep surge in COVID-19 cases.

These include 1,109 samples testing positive for the UK variants, 79 for the South Africa variant and one sample for the Brazil variant, the ministry said.

Till April 15, 13,614 samples have been processed at the 10 designated INSACOG laboratories for whole genome sequencing (WGS), it added.

“Of these, 1,189 samples have tested positive for variants of concern for SARS COV-2 in India. This includes 1,109 samples with the UK variants; 79 samples with the South Africa variant and one sample with the Brazil variant,” the ministry said.

The coronavirus has been mutating and various mutations have been found in several countries, including the UK (17 mutations), Brazil (17 mutations) and South Africa (12 mutations).

“These variants have a higher transmissibility. The UK variant has been found extensively in the UK, all across Europe and has spread to Asia and America.

“The double mutation (two mutations) is another variant and has been found in several countries like Australia, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Namibia, New Zealand, Singapore, the United Kingdom, the USA. Higher transmissibility of this variant is not established as yet,” the ministry said in a statement.

It said the RT-PCR tests being conducted in India do not miss these mutations as these tests target more than two genes.

The sensitivity and specificity of the RT-PCR tests remain the same as earlier, it said.

“The detection of these mutations does not change the strategy of management which remains to test, track, trace and treat. The use of masks remains as the most important shield to prevent the spread of COVID-19,” the ministry stressed.

It said the INSACOG guidelines were shared with the states again and they were advised to send samples for genome sequencing by also providing the clinical data of positive persons.

This will enable a great epidemiological insight into the link of the surge at various places to the variants as well as enable the INSACOG to discover other variants of concern, if present in the community.

Many states, including Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Kerala, are yet to share the data with the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), though Punjab and Delhi have shared the information, the ministry highlighted.

The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) is a network of 10 laboratories established in December 2020 for continuously monitoring the genomic changes of SARS-CoV-2 in the country through WGS.

The SOPs for epidemiological surveillance and response in the context of a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus detected in the UK were disseminated to all the states as well as placed on the ministry’s website on December 22, 2020.

According to the INSACOG guidelines, positive samples are sourced for WGS from international travellers who are positive by RT-PCR, community samples are coordinated by the state surveillance officers, who facilitate the transfer of samples from the districts or laboratories to the designated INSACOG laboratories. All states have been mapped to specific INSACOG laboratories.

The 10 identified INSACOG laboratories report their sequencing results to the Central Surveillance Unit (CSU) of the NCDC, from where it is shared with the state surveillance units (SSUs) of the IDSP through email as well as regular meetings by the NCDC with the state surveillance officers, who, in turn, take up the operational response with the health secretaries.

Hence, the states are continuously informed of the virus variants found in other states, the ministry said.

In a few instances, the INSACOG laboratories have also communicated the results directly to the states.

The NCDC has also communicated state-specific results formally to the states concerned from time to time. The results of Himachal Pradesh were communicated on April 8, those of Punjab were communicated on March 26, those of Rajasthan on April 10 and those of Maharashtra were shared with the state on nine different occasions from March 12 to April 16.

Written communications on the need for more stringent measures were sent at regular intervals not just to the high-burden states, but all the states by the secretary (health), assistant secretary (health), NCDC director and IDSP to the chief secretaries, ACS health, SSOs, DHSs etc.

The states and Union territories were repeatedly asked to keep a strict vigil and take up stringent public health measures in view of the unlock provisions and new strains being reported from various countries.

Press briefings conducted by the health ministry provide specific updates on the current status of the variants of concern and the new mutants, and also stress on increased and stringent public health interventions.

At a press briefing on March 24, the NCDC director made a detailed presentation on various variants of the coronavirus detected in the country, the ministry said.

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