WHO Classifies India COVID-19 Strain As ‘Variant Of Concern’

The World Health Organization said Monday that a new COVID-19 variant first identified in India is now classified as a variant of global concern, amid skyrocketing case levels in the country and research that shows the modified coronavirus may spread more easily.

The variant, known as B.1.617, was first seen in India at the end of last year but has since been found in 32 countries, including the United States. Four variants have now been classified as “variants of concern,” including those that first emerged in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil. All have worried scientists who say the mutated strains could be easier to spread, harder to inoculate against or both.

“There is some available information to suggest some increased transmissibility of B.1.617,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead of WHO’s coronavirus response, said Monday at a news conference. “Even though there is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies, we need much more information about this virus variant in this lineage in all of the sub lineages, so we need more sequencing, targeted sequencing to be done.”

A resident of a street artists' transit camp is inoculated against COVID-19 in New Delhi.

A resident of a street artists’ transit camp is inoculated against COVID-19 in New Delhi.

More details about the India variant will be released Tuesday. There is no evidence yet that current COVID-19 vaccines are less effective against it.

India in in the midst of a severe spike in COVID-19 cases. The country is averaging more than 391,000 cases a day over a seven-day period, and the pandemic has already killed 246,000 people in the country. Experts, however, warn those tallies may be severely undercounted and say the country could see up to 1 million COVID-19 deaths by August, The New York Times reported.

It’s unclear if the B.1.617 variant is linked to the stratospheric case levels. India has suffered from a series of public health crises, and experts have castigated the government’s response to the pandemic.

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