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How much of a threat is the India variant?

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With a new variant causing concern, Mark Ainsworth, who heads up Schroders’ coronavirus research, shares insight on what this could mean.

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The news of vaccines sparked joy and relief in many countries, as hopes grew about an end to the pandemic.

However, the growth in variants globally has recently dampened spirits.

“In the UK, just as lockdown restrictions started to ease, the news of a new ’double mutant’ variant of the coronavirus, labelled B.1.617.2 from India, has caused concern. The effect of this new variant is clear to see from the devastating scenes in India,” says Ebeth Van Heerden, head of intermediary at Schroders in South Africa.

“Apart from the harrowing concern for families and their loved ones, for global investors, the issue is really centred around the likelihood of a return to hard lock-downs, which have an impact on company operations and earnings, economies and ultimately market prices,” says Van Heerden.

Mark Ainsworth, who leads Schroders’ global coronavirus research team and Data Insights Unit, answered some questions about the new variant.

Does the double mutation make it more dangerous?

Not necessarily. “Double mutant” sounds scary, but viruses mutate all of the time. The new variant is called this because it shares two mutations that have been proven in other strains to produce partial immune-escape. This means it escapes natural immunity in the body, either brought about from being vaccinated or a previous infection.

Are vaccines effective against the variant B.1.617.2 (the “India variant”)?

The good news is that it looks like vaccines do work against B.1.617.2. There is evidence – for example – from a case where there was a coronavirus outbreak of the new variant in a London care home, where all of the residents had been vaccinated and nobody died. This indicates that vaccines work against severe illness even if they don’t entirely stop transmission from person to person. Likewise, the case growth happening in Bolton – a key UK hotspot for this variant – is concentrated in younger age groups that haven’t yet been vaccinated.

What could this mean for the rest of the world?

Essentially there are two groups. For the ‘zero Covid’ countries like China and New Zealand who have eliminated community transmission inside their borders, a faster-spreading variant means it’s essential they continue to enforce very tight restrictions on incoming travellers. For all other countries it increases the importance of getting their populations vaccinated, to slow transmission and reduce the need for other measures such as lockdowns to protect their populations.

It is highly likely that variant B.1.617.2 will make its way around the world as the variants from the UK, South Africa and Brazil did. Japan has already announced new restrictions and genome sequencing there has found that between 20-30% of all new coronavirus cases are the new variant from India. It also makes foreign travel for holidays less likely globally as governments seek to stop this variant and others from landing on their shores.

What should we be watching out for?

We’re keeping an eye on lab research from the vaccine companies. They’ll look at the extent of immune escape as measured by “neutralising titre” – a way of measuring how many antibodies are needed to neutralise an invading virus.

The South African variant has a mutation that means it takes eight times as many antibodies to neutralise the virus as the original variant. This was a quite small reduction in real world immunity as your body can make lots of antibodies. If we see the need for 100 times more antibodies to neutralise the virus we would be concerned, as that would be a dramatic increase. So far it looks like vaccine antibodies work better against the variant from India than the South African one.

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