Back to News

B.1.617 COVID Variant from India: What We Know So Far

Back to News

April 27, 2021

B.1.617 COVID Variant from India: What We Know So Far

Tracey Lee Batsford

picture B.1.617 COVID Variant from India: What We Know So Far

As India’s coronavirus cases continue to rise at a record-breaking rate, researchers from around the world are investigating a new COVID-19 variant, B.1.617, which was originally found in India, but has quickly spread throughout the world. Professor Sharon Peacock, Director of COG-UK, and Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge recently explained that the first B.1.617 genome was submitted to the Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System’s (GISAID) global database in October 2020. It was first detected in the UK and US in February 2021.

As of the middle of April, B.1.617 genome data has been added to the database by 21 different countries. Why is this COVID-19 variant making so many headlines? Is it more dangerous than other variants, such as B.1.1.7 (UK), B.1.351 (South Africa) and P.1 (Brazil)?

What is Different About COVID-19 Variant B.1.617?

B.1.617 (India) has been categorized as a “Variant of Interest,” which means the variant is being monitored. While the second wave in India was widely caused by the B.1.1.7 variant, B.1.617, which originated in the state of Maharashtra, has rapidly triggered new surges in other Indian states as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Scientists are increasingly concerned about how different B.1.617 is from other variants. The reason? B.1.617 has been dubbed a “double-mutant COVID variant.”

What is a Double-Mutant COVID Variant?

B.1.617 is called a double-mutant COVID variant because it carries two mutations in the spike protein that the virus uses to fasten itself to human cell receptors and gain entry into cells. The two mutations are L452R, which is also present in the dominant strain found in California, and E484Q, which is also present in B.1.351 and P.1. This is the first time both mutations have been found together in a viral lineage.

“Scientifically, however, calling any variant, including B.1.617 a double-mutant makes no sense,” Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease scientist at Scripps Research Institute said recently in an interview with NPR. “SARS-CoV-2 mutates all the time. There are many double mutants all over the place.” Nevertheless, many health organizations and the media across the world continue to use the “double-mutant” moniker.

Is B.1.617 More Dangerous Than Other COVID Variants?

While more evidence is needed to determine if the two mutations make the B.1.617 more dangerous, some preliminary research has shown that the L452R mutation may improve the virus’ ability to infect human cells. Some studies even suggest that the L452R mutation can help the virus evade the human immune system, while other research points to E484Q’s propensity to making the virus less susceptible to antibodies.

Experts in India have also indicated that the variant may be highly transmissible: almost 60% of all cases in India’s COVID-19 epicenter have been caused by B.1.617. During an interview with Bloomberg, Anurag Agrawal, Director of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s genomics institute, indicated that the L452R mutation, which has been well-documented in the United States, increases transmission by 20% and decreases antibody efficacy by 50%.

Do Vaccines Work Against B.1.617?

There is still not enough data and research to determine whether any COVID-19 vaccines protect humans against B.1.617. According to the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), B.1.617 may be akin to an ‘escape variant,’ which overrides immunity from previous infection and can withstand certain types of vaccines.

Cambridge University researcher, Dr. Ravi Gupta, wrote that there are signs that people who already had COVID-19 have been reinfected with B.1.617. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also warns that fully vaccinated individuals may be at risk of catching and spreading the variant.

Promising news, however, is coming out of Israel. Seven cases of the B.1.617 have been found in late April and doctors appear to believe that the Pfizer vaccine may have some efficacy against the variant. Preliminary evidence has also shown that some protection is possible by Covishield, also known as the AstraZeneca vaccine.

What is Next for B.1.617?

It is still too early to determine if B.1.617 will cause larger-scale outbreaks and undermine vaccination rollouts.

The key to learning more about the potentially devastating effects of the variant will be how much infected countries can ramp up publishing sequence data that is critical for epidemiological studies and understanding the virus’ pathogenesis.

Only time will tell how vaccines can be modified or developed to fight B.1.617.

“It is still early days in understanding the importance of the arrival of the Indian variant in the United States. The B.1.617 variant has all the hallmarks of a very dangerous virus. We must do all that is possible to identify its spread and to contain it.” – William A. Haseltine, American Scientist, and former Harvard Medical School Professor