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Covid variant in India is of concern, seems to spread more easily: WHO

It says variant seems to be spreading more easily but too early to say it might be more resistant to vaccines

GENEVA: A Covid-19 variant spreading in India appears to be more contagious and has been classified as being "of concern", the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday.

The United Nations health agency said the B1617 variant first found in India last October seemed to be transmitting more easily.

"There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility of the B1617," said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's lead on Covid-19.

"As such, we are classifying this as a variant of concern at the global level," she said.

She also pointed to early studies "suggesting that there is some reduced neutralisation", meaning antibodies appeared to have less impact on the variant in small-sample lab studies.

The WHO insisted though that it was far too early to interpret this to mean that the variant might have more resistance to vaccine protections.

"Based on current data, the Covid-19 vaccines remain effective at preventing disease and death in people infected with this variant."

Dr Van Kerkhove stressed that when it comes to the variant, for the time being "we don't have anything to suggest that our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines don't work".

WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan agreed, urging a balanced approach.

"What we know now is that the vaccines work, the diagnostics work, the same treatments that are used for the regular virus work," she said.

"So there is really no need to change any of those, and in fact... people should go ahead and get whatever vaccine is available to them."

India's coronavirus crisis showed scant sign of easing yesterday, with a seven-day average of new cases at a record high.

India's cases rose by 329,942, while deaths rose by 3,876, according to the Health Ministry. India's total infections are now at 23 million, while total fatalities rose to 249,992.

India leads the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported, accounting for one in every three deaths reported worldwide each day, according to a Reuters tally. The seven-day average of new cases is at a record high of 390,995.

The wave has overwhelmed India's healthcare system, and experts have said the official figures are much lower than the actual numbers. - AFP, REUTERS

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