Officially, the variant is called B.1.617.
It was first detected in India and is now the dominant strain in Maharashtra- Mumbai’s home state on the western coast. B.1.617 has also been detected in 20 other countries, including the United States.
“Double mutant” is actually a terrible nickname for this variant as it has 13 mutations and 3 mutations on the spike protein. However, people have dubbed it this name because the following two concerning mutations appear together for the first time:
E484Q: This is very close to the E484K mutation on the B.1.351 (S. Africa) and P.1 (Brazil) variants. We know that E484K is an escape mutation. This means it reduces the number of neutralizing antibodies from vaccinated and unvaccinated people. Our vaccines have been able to hold up against it so far, though.
Should we be worried?
Just because there are two worrisome mutations on one variant doesn’t necessarily mean this is double contagious or double deadly. The WHO has declared B.1.617 a “Variant of Interest” instead a “Variant of Concern” (here are some definitions if you’re curious of the difference). Basically, we are still learning a lot.
We did get great news, though, in the past 24 hours…the Covaxin vaccine (developed by Indian pharmaceutical company) does still work, to some degree, against B.1.617. Unfortunately, Covaxin biotechnology is different than Pfizer, Moderna, J&J, and AstraZeneca vaccines. So, much more research is needed.
On the other hand, we’re starting to see a concerning pattern. By December 2020, 271 million people in India were already “naturally” infected. Once B.1.1.7. and B.1.617 gained speed (and the combination of public health mitigations were ignored), India was (and still is) hit with its biggest surge yet. We saw the same story in Brazil. The city of Manaus had over 70% of people “naturally” infected. But, once P.1. hit, they had a major surge. Populations that have high “natural” immunity are getting re-infected. It doesn’t look like natural infection will protect us for long. Get your vaccine.
Why should we care?
Well, first off, this is a global pandemic and we should be mourning the magnitude of loss in India right now.
Second, this variant just hit the United States.
Third, the more this virus jumps from person-to-person (regardless of where it’s at in the globe), the more chances it has to mutate. The more it mutates, the more chances it has to outsmart our vaccines.
We need to keep a close eye on this variant. Stay vigilant.