Existing vaccines will work against mutated strains of the coronavirus that have emerged from the United Kingdom and South Africa in recent months, the Health Ministry said at its Tuesday briefing.
The ministry was responding to fears the first lot of vaccines will be ineffective against aggressive variants of a virus that has already infected over a crore and killed 1.5 lakh people in India alone.
“There is no evidence current vaccines will fail to protect against COVID-19 variants from the UK or South Africa,” Professor K VijayRaghavan, the government’s Principal Scientific Adviser, said.
“Most vaccines do target the spike protein (a part of the virus’ genetic code that the mutations have altered) but vaccines stimulate our immune system to produce a wide range of antibodies. The changes in the variants are not sufficient to make the vaccines ineffective,” he added.
The mutated versions of the coronavirus detected in the UK and South Africa are significantly more transmissible than other known strains; for example, the strain detected in London and southeast England, which has been labelled B.1.1.7, is reportedly 70 per cent more infectious.
India is likely to start its vaccination programme in January, Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan said last week. The vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, and mass-produced by Pune-based Serum Institute, will likely be the first to be distributed.
The Oxford vaccine is currently pending clearance by UK regulators. India has said it will wait on that decision before allowing emergency use in this country.
On Monday Serum Institute CEO Adar Poonawalla said the vaccine could be cleared in the UK “by end of December or early January”. He also said the majority of the first 50 million doses would be for India.
A day earlier AstraZeneca CEO Pascal Soriot told a UK daily that his vaccine would “protect 95 per cent of patients”, and that it “should be” effective against the mutant strains.
Similar assurances have been made by other scientists, including the head of the EU’s medicines regulator, who said the Pfizer vaccine – which has been rolled out in the UK and has applied for emergency use in India, would also protect against the new strain.
Doctors say there is nothing to indicate the new strains leads to more fatalities, but they do urge caution given that increased infection rates could put more people at risk.
At today’s briefing the health ministry emphasised the need to continue following Covid-appropriate behaviour, including maintaining social distance, using face masks and washing hands regularly.
Cases of the new strain have already been detected in several countries, including Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, France, Japan and Sweden. This morning India joined that list after six passengers who had recently returned from the UK tested positive.
Outlining plans to combat the new strain and minimise its spread, the Health Ministry said genome sequencing (to identify and isolate the mutated virus) will be conducted on all symptomatic and Covid-positive international passengers landing in India in the last 14 days.
The government also plans to conduct genome sequencing on five per cent of Indians who tested positive since November 23, to identify cases that may have gone unrecognised so far.
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