The new variant of the coronavirus detected in India is more contagious and has characteristics that could make vaccines less effective, contributing to the expansion of the pandemic in that country of 1.3 billion inhabitants, warned the chief scientist of the World Health Organization (WHO), Soumya Swaminathan.

On Saturday, for the first time, India recorded more than 4,000 deaths from covid-19 in 24 hours, and more than 400,000 new infections, although experts believe that the official figures are greatly underestimated.

In an interview with AFP, Swaminathan, an Indian pediatrician and researcher, noted that variant B.1.617 (also known as “double mutant”), which was detected for the first time in October in his country, was undoubtedly a factor that increased the epidemic.

This variant could be classified by the WHO on the list of those considered more dangerous than the coronavirus original, due to its greater spread, its ability to nullify the defenses provided by vaccines, increasing the mortality rate among affected patients, the scientist considered.

The variant B.1.617 “presents mutations that increase transmission and that can also potentially make it resistant to antibodies developed through vaccination or natural contamination”, he explained.

But this variant of the dramatic increase in cases in India, which appears to have let down its guard too early, with “large mass concentrations,” cannot be singled out alone, however, he said.

Danger of more mutations

In a country as vast as India, the contagion can continue silently for months. “Those first signals were ignored until (the transmissions) reached a vertical take-off point“.

For now, it is very difficult to fight the virus “because the epidemic affects thousands of people and is multiplying at a rate that is very difficult to stop”, Swaminathan pointed out, warning that vaccination alone would not be enough to regain control of the health situation.

India, the world’s largest producer of vaccines, has so far inoculated two doses to just 2% of its population of 1.3 billion.

“It would take months, maybe years, to reach a rate of 70 to 80%” of the immunized population, according to the researcher.

In the near future, proven health and social measures will be needed to tackle the epidemic, he warned.

The more the virus replicates, spreads and is transmitted, the more the danger of mutations and adaptations increases”, the scientist stressed. “Variants that undergo a large number of mutations could eventually become resistant to the vaccines we have today,” he sentenced.

“This will be a problem for everyone”, Swaminathan added.

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