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Has Covid-19 strain evolved since it was first reported in India? ICMR study to find answer

After the lockdown, ICMR plans to ask all states and UTs to send positive Covid-19 samples to study the genetic diversity of the virus, which it says will help India prepare better.

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New Delhi: India plans to study the evolution of novel coronavirus across all states and union territories (UT) to check if the strain has changed since it was first reported in India in January, ThePrint has learnt.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the apex health research body of India, is planning to study the genetic diversity of the virus after the lockdown is lifted. “The plan is to collect the positive samples across the country and understand the evolution of the virus,” Nivedita Gupta, a senior scientist with ICMR, told ThePrint.

All states and UTs will be asked to send these positive samples.

“We will study if the present strain has evolved or is the same as the initial strain. For this, we need to sequence the whole or partial virus as per the availability of samples,” she said.

Also read: June Almeida — the woman who discovered first coronavirus but was told she was wrong

Understanding evolution

The evolution of the virus can be good or bad.

For instance, the change in the virus could mean it is less transmittable and less hostile (virulent) or vice versa. Or it may evolve into a less hostile but more transmittable virus or vice versa.

“Evolution can be anything related to its virulence and transmission ability,” explained Gupta, adding that the move is important as it will help in better planning and management of the outbreak.

The process will start after the lockdown ends since current travel restrictions will affect the virus samples and therefore, the results. “Under lockdown, it is difficult to receive samples on time due to hurdles in transportation. Sample needs to be packed in dry ice and shipped within a limited travel time,” she explained.

The tests will be performed by the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune, an arm of the ICMR that specialises in viral diseases.

Also read: India’s Covid deaths rise steadily but infection rate fluctuates in states: Data experts

‘Evidence’ of different strains

The study on virus evolution by ICMR will help in putting an end to the ongoing debate on the prevalence of “different strains”.

For instance, Gujarat has attributed the high mortality rate due to Covid-19 to a more virulent strain of the SARS-CoV-2 or novel coronavirus that causes the disease.

Media reports quote officials as saying that the ‘L-type strain’, which was widespread in China’s Wuhan, the initial epicentre of the outbreak, is more prevalent in Gujarat, as opposed to the ‘S-strain’, which is claimed to be less virulent.

Gujarat’s Principal Secretary, Health, Jayanti Ravi had claimed that according to information gathered by scientists a different strain of the virus was behind the state’s slower recovery rate.

While Gupta refrained from commenting on this and said the “NIV will share the results once out”, other virologists have repeatedly confirmed that there is just one strain of the novel coronavirus.

Regular mutations appear in the virus as it evolves and transmits, forming different clades or groups based on their genetic sequences, but they offer no extra immunity or virulence, according to experts.

“The objective of our study is not triggered by any states’ claim (about the variety of strains) but in any outbreak, it is important to keep studying the evolution of virus you are dealing with,” Gupta said.

Also read: Gujarat is wrong. There’s just 1 strain of coronavirus and all mutations are as dangerous

Madhya Pradesh keen on viral studies

The Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Medical College (MGMMC) in Madhya Pradesh on Wednesday sent samples from three districts including Indore, Bhopal, and Sagar to the NIV.

It is, however, not clear if these samples will be a part of the overall study or states are sending samples independently for testing.

The MGMMC virology lab is among the first in Madhya Pradesh to start testing for the Covid-19 and had till 16 April been conducting tests of samples from across the state.

“We were suggested to do this (send samples to NIV Pune) by all the scientific bodies and we asked the opinion of consultants from NCDC (National Centre of Disease Control) and then from NIV Pune. They had all agreed,” MGMMC’s dean, Dr Jyoti Bindal, told ThePrint. According to her, four to five samples had been sent for testing.

When asked if she thought the strain in Indore was more virulent, Bindal said commenting on it would be mere speculation.

On Sunday, she was quoted by PTI as saying the viral strain in the Indore belt, which has a considerably higher fatality rate, could be more virulent.

However, later, over a call with ThePrint, she said, “Samples are sent only for a study to understand the genome type of the virus. It will also help in the development of the vaccine.”

Also read: Only 1 in 24 Indians testing positive for Covid, ICMR says this shows our strategy’s working


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