A so-called “double mutant” version of the novel coronavirus first detected in India has now reached several European countries.
Health authorities in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Romania, Switzerland and Belgium have detected cases of the so-called Indian variant, formally known as B.1.617.
The cases have raised alarm over a possible rapid spread in infections driven by the strain, which brings together two key mutations on the spike side of the virus previously spotted in other dominant coronavirus variants.
Here is what you should know:
What is the Indian variant?
B.1.617 contains two notable mutations – formally known as E484Q and L452R. This has led to it sometimes being dubbed the “double mutant” strain, though this is something of a misnomer as it actually carries more than a dozen mutations altogether.
Preliminary evidence suggests the mutations make B.1.617 more transmissible and less susceptible to vaccines than other strains, but scientists are still attempting to determine the extent to which that is the case.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated it as a “variant of interest”, suggesting it may be more infectious than other versions of the virus, cause more severe disease or evade vaccine immunity to a greater degree.
But other strains with known risks, such as those first detected in the UK, Brazil and South Africa, have been categorised as “variants of concern” – a higher threat level.
Where has it been detected?
B.1.617 has been recorded in at least 17 countries worldwide since first being detected in India, which is currently battling a devastating wave of COVID-19 infections.
In Europe, the UK has been the most affected country, with health authorities recording 193 cases of the variant to date.
Sporadic cases have also been detected in France, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Portugal and Spain. On Thursday, Romania reported its first case.
As of yet, however, the variant does not appear to have made significant inroads in any of the affected countries, or across the wider region.
Should we be concerned?
If B.1.617 gains a foothold in Europe, it could lead to a spike in COVID-19 infections in the region, undermining continuing efforts to roll out vaccinations and end the pandemic.
In response to the spread of the variant, a number of European governments – including the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Spain – have issued travel bans or restrictions on arrivals from India.
The moves come as several European nations battle with third waves, with efforts to contain COVID-19 in some areas of the continent hampered by sluggish mass vaccination efforts.