Dr Jameel added that “there may be a separate lineage developing in India with the L452R and E484Q mutations coming together”.
Are double mutants a worry?
Smitha Mundasad, BBC health reporter
A “double mutant virus” – it’s a scary phrase. Breaking it down, the words suggests that Indian scientists have discovered two significant mutations – or changes – in different locations in a single variant of the virus.
That is not so surprising. Viruses mutate all the time but the questions that need answering are: does the presence of this double mutation change how the virus behaves? Will this variant be more infectious now, or cause more severe disease? And importantly, will current vaccines still work well against it?
Scientists will now be busy doing the detective work needed to find out the answers. Officials say because the proportion of tests that have come back with this double mutation is currently low, there is currently nothing to suggest this is behind the current surge in cases.
What is clear is that this double mutation, as different as it sounds, requires the same public health response. Increased testing, tracking of close contacts, the prompt isolation of cases, as well as masks and social distancing will all help. Reducing the pressure on India’s over-burdened healthcare system is key.
In terms of vaccines – so far, for many variants of concern around the world they have been shown to be effective, though sometimes less so when compared to the original viruses they were designed against. Scientists are confident that if needed, existing vaccines can be modified to target new mutations.
The Indian government denies that the rise in cases is linked to the mutations.
“Though VOCs [variants of concern] and a new double mutant variant have been found in India, these have not been detected in numbers sufficient to either establish a direct relationship or explain the rapid increase in cases in some states,” the health ministry said.
The recent report comes after several experts had asked the government to step up genome sequencing efforts.
“We need to constantly monitor and make sure none of the variants of concern are spreading in the population. The fact that it is not happening now doesn’t mean it will not happen in the future. And we have to make sure that we get the evidence early enough,” Dr Jameel told the BBC’s Soutik Biswas earlier this month.