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Many unknowns about 'immune evasive' B.1.617 variant identified in India: expert

Last Updated Apr 23, 2021 at 6:19 am PDT

In this March 11, 2020 photo, a laboratory technician prepares COVID-19 patient samples for semi-automatic testing at Northwell Health Labs, in Lake Success, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
Summary

The variant's particular spike protein reduces the body's immune system's ability to neutralize the virus

Dr. Jeffrey Joy says the clinical severity of the variant, effect of vaccines are not yet known

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A UBC expert says there’s still a lot we don’t know about the B.1.617 strain of the coronavirus, a variant believed to be driving a devastating surge of cases in India.

After India set a world record for new infections with more than 314,000 cases in a single day Thursday, Canada suspended incoming flights from India and Pakistan.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said half the people who are testing positive for the coronavirus after arriving in Canada by airplane came from India. Flights from India account for about one-fifth of the country’s air traffic. There are also a disproportionately higher number of positive cases among those travelling on flights from Pakistan, she said, adding the move makes sense given how little researchers understand about the variant.

Dr. Jeffrey Joy, a research scientist at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, says this strain of the virus has been classified as a “variant of interest,” but he predicts it will soon be categorized as a variant of concern.

“India already has a large number of infections but this one is becoming dominant in their surveillance which indicates that it may be, or is likely to be, more transmissible,” he explains.

“Another thing that’s notable about this particular one is that some of those mutations in the spike protein that it has actually reduces the body’s immune system’s ability to neutralize the virus. So it’s a bit ‘immune evasive.'”

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Among the worrying unknowns about this variant is whether vaccines are effective against it. Joy says it’s also just too soon to know whether it is more likely to result in serious illness or death.

He also notes that just because a strain of the virus is first identified in a particular country does not mean it originated there. The B.1.617  variants has now been detected in Australia, South Korea, Switzerland, Germany, Singapore, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, and the United States.

“Just being detected there doesn’t mean that it evolved there. It may have evolved elsewhere, moved there, and then been detected there,” he explains, saying the B.1.1.7 variant was likely first identified in the UK because that country does a very good job of tracking the virus — something he says is crucial in a global pandemic.

“It’s important, both for the local epidemic in terms of managing it, but it’s also important from an international perspective in terms of understanding how the virus is moving around.

Since Canadian border and travel restrictions don’t entirely stop people from travelling, and the virus moves with people there are “number of ways” these variants can show up in this country.

He points out people who are considered essential workers can cross the border, and suggests others are getting away without staying at hotels upon arrival at a Canadian airport, if they first land at a U.S. border town, then make their way into Canada.

“Yes we have border restrictions, but they are not necessarily strict enough to entirely prevent the flow of the virus.”

With files from The Associated Press