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How dangerous is the "double mutation" from India?

The Indian coronavirus variant B.1.617 shows two significant genetic changes in a surface protein: E484Q and L452R. The exact position of the respective genome change is hidden behind these cryptic numbers.

The individual mutations have been known for a long time: E484Q is similar to E484K, which also appeared in the British, South African and Brazilian variants. And the L452R mutation can already be found in the Californian variant CAL.20C. In India, however, these two mutations now appear together for the first time, which is why a "double mutant" is often reported.

"Double mutation" is not solely responsible for the dramatic situation

The fact that both mutants occur together does not necessarily mean that this variant is also twice as contagious or dangerous - this has yet to be researched. So far, the data is simply missing to be able to better assess the Indian variant.

But in any case it is only one of the reasons for the devastating situation on the Indian subcontinent. India has more than 17 million actually confirmed infections, which is already the second most infections worldwide after the USA, and the number of unreported cases is likely to be gigantic. Almost 200,000 people have already died from or with the coronavirus in India.

Ritual mass events instead of binding distance rules

Above all, it is the far too many COVID cases occurring at the same time - 332,000 detected new infections in one day - that are causing the health system, which is already lagging behind in large parts of the country, to collapse. For far too long, the national and local authorities had only fought the pandemic half-heartedly, very early on the regulations were relaxed again and even major events were tolerated.

Escape the immune system

When a new form of virus finds a way to escape our immune system, science calls this an "escape mutation".

Basically, according to the Robert Koch Institute, these mutations lead to a "reduced ability to be neutralized by antibodies or T cells". The decisive factor, however, is how much the reduction actually has an effect.

"Escape mutations" can also be dangerous for those who have already been vaccinated and those who have recovered, because they, too, are probably less well protected from infection with this Indian variant. It is not yet clear whether people who have been vaccinated can also infect others.

Nevertheless, SPD health expert and epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach refers to a new neutralization study from India on Twitter, according to which the existing vaccines should work against the new variant B.1.617.

According to a new British study, the vaccinations also reduce the risk of infection by two thirds, according to Lauterbach. And if you get sick despite the vaccination, the probability of a severe course also drops by two thirds. That at least suggests that these patients are also less contagious themselves.

International assessment

Even if it sounds cynical in view of the dramatic situation in India: So far the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the Indian variant B.1.617 merely as a "variant of interest".

Apocalyptic images: corpses are burned on stakes instead of in the completely overcrowded crematorium

In contrast, the British variant B.1.1.7, the South African variant B.1.351 and the Brazilian variant P.1 are classified as really "worrying", as a "variant of concern".

From the WHO's point of view, these variants are "worrying" because they spread more easily, because the disease processes are more severe and longer, because the virus can evade the immune system and because the vaccines developed are less effective.

So far, however, very little reliable information is available about the new Indian "double mutation", so it is quite possible that the WHO will have to adjust its classification accordingly after a re-evaluation of the data.

German experts calm down

"It is not yet possible to derive a reliable trend from the few observations, but that should be observed closely," says Richard Neher, head of the research group Evolution of Viruses and Bacteria at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel. In general, not much is known about some variants with notable mutations. "In this respect, I don't think that B.1.617 deserves more attention than other variants," says Neher.

Even the head of virology at the Berlin Charité, Christian Drosten, saw no cause for alarm in the Indian variant as early as March. In order to be able to reach "most of the Immunescape mutants" with comparably "little effort", only "a slight update" is needed for the next generation of vaccines, according to Drosten in his NDR podcast.

  • Corona in India: a country is gasping for air

    deep mourning

    Relatives of a deceased COVID patient mourn outside a hospital in Ahmedabad, India. In India, the corona pandemic is spreading faster and faster. More than 330,000 new infections within 24 hours - so many have not been seen in any other country in the world. More than a million people in India have become infected with the virus in the past four days alone.

  • Corona in India: a country is gasping for air

    Overcrowded hospitals

    COVID-19 patients are waiting for treatment at this hospital in New Delhi. Many hospitals are completely overburdened. "We are missing urgently needed beds, oxygen frations and medication," Shuchin Bajaj, an Indian doctor and director of a hospital chain, told DW. "We are forced to turn away patients. The situation in the country is downright apocalyptic."

  • Corona in India: a country is gasping for air

    Rickshaw instead of waiting room

    In their need, many patients still open up - and sometimes have to wait for hours in front of the hospitals, like this man in a motor rickshaw in Ahmedabad. At least he got one of the increasingly scarce oxygen bottles. According to official information, around 5,000 intensive care beds were missing in Delhi alone. Some hospitals have almost run out of oxygen.

  • Corona in India: a country is gasping for air

    Supplies for the next

    As here in Allahabad, in many parts of the country relatives jostle with empty oxygen bottles at refill stations to take care of their relatives. Oxygen is already being traded at exorbitant prices on the black market. The government is considering stopping oil refineries and other industries that use oxygen for production. Instead, the oxygen should be delivered to hospitals.

  • Corona in India: a country is gasping for air

    Fire in the intensive care unit

    On Friday night a fire broke out in this hospital near Mumbai. The entire intensive care unit burned out, at least 13 COVID patients died. The cause of the fire is still unclear. But dangerous fires often break out in India - even in hospitals. The cause is usually poor or outdated equipment. Fire protection is often inadequate, and emergency exits are rare.

  • Corona in India: a country is gasping for air

    Overcrowded crematoria

    Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 185,000 Indians have died as a result of the coronavirus. More than 2,000 deaths are currently added every day. Hinduism allows cremation as the only possible type of burial. But in many regions of the country, such as here in the capital Delhi, the crematoria can hardly keep up with the cremation of the corpses.

  • Corona in India: a country is gasping for air

    Mutant on the rise

    The situation in the country is exacerbated by the rapid spread of a particularly contagious double mutation of the coronavirus. Due to variant B.1.617, many countries have issued entry bans for travelers from India - and even issued travel warnings for the country - the USA itself for people who have already been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

  • Corona in India: a country is gasping for air

    Waiting for the vaccine

    More than 1.3 billion people live in India - but only a fraction of less than two percent of the adult population has been vaccinated so far. The country is one of the largest vaccine producers in the world. However, it was not until late that the Indian pharmaceutical companies were instructed to meet domestic demand first. From May 1st, vaccines should now be available to all Indians over the age of 18.

  • Corona in India: a country is gasping for air

    Pilgrimage festival in pandemic times

    But experts do not only blame the poor vaccination rate for the rapid spread of the coronavirus, but also religious, political and sporting mass events all over the country. Several million believers attended the Kumbh Mela, India's largest Hindu pilgrimage. Masks and rules of distance played no role in the ritual bath in the Ganges.

  • Corona in India: a country is gasping for air

    Election campaign instead of warnings

    And so far politics has also set a rather bad example. Regional elections were held in the state of West Bengal earlier this month. During the election campaign, there were mass rallies with leading politicians from the ruling BJP party in the metropolis of Kolkata. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also took part - and was celebrated by thousands of closely packed supporters.

    Author: Thomas Latschan