N440K variant detected in Punjab, role behind surge under probe (IANS Exclusive)

Amid growing concerns over the unabated resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Punjab, the presence of an Indian variant of SARS-CoV-2 detected in a number of Covid positive samples is causing a new worry.

The Institute for Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), Delhi, has found the N440K variant of novel coronavirus in the samples that arrived from Punjab, officials told IANS.

IGIB is a part of the consortium of genome sequencing labs or INSACOG created by the Centre to culture the SARS-CoV-2 virus and find patterns and mutations in it.

However, the samples detected are relatively small and were confirmed by the Health and Family Welfare Department of Punjab. “Out of 100, only two have been found exhibiting the mutations of N440K variant,” Rajesh Bhaskar, state nodal officer for Covid-19, told IANS.

The development was confirmed by a director rank official at the Department of Health and Family Welfare in Punjab. When asked if the detected variant could be the reason behind the surge in the number of cases or if the symptoms found in the samples are more severe in nature, Bhaskar said that he cannot comment on the lack of official communication from the laboratory.

“Yes, we have been informed about it. However, I cannot comment further, till we receive it through a formal communication,” the top official said.

Bhaskar also said that the state would wait for further results before interpreting anything on the variant. “Results of 300 more samples are pending in the laboratory and we would wait for their results before arriving at any conclusion,” he added.

Punjab has been witnessing a spike in Covid-19 cases with the infection tally witnessing a manifold rise in the last three weeks. The state reported 352 cases on February 21, while it recorded 1,515 new cases by the end of the day on Saturday, the highest so far this year.

The state has reimposed certain restrictions over gatherings, including night curfew in four districts.

The genetically tweaked variant with a mutation named N440K has been found largely in the southern states. An analysis by IGIB, conducted in December last year, suggested that it was found in nearly 34 per cent of the 272 SARS-CoV-2 genomes analysed from Andhra Pradesh.

A latest study by scientists at the Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology (CCMB) published in February found that the N440K mutation is spreading a lot more in the southern states of India, and deeper surveillance is needed to understand if it has worse symptoms or immune-escape capacities.

However, another research conducted by the Kurnool Medical College in Andhra Pradesh, published two weeks ago, underlined that N440K can escape the immune response as well as cause reinfection of Covid-19. The conclusion was based on the study of the two reported cases of reinfection – found in Noida and Kurnool – which showed the presence of the variant in them.

Last month, the Union Health Ministry had stated that the N440K along with E484Q (another variant) were detected in Maharashtra, Kerala and Telangana. However, it added that their role behind the probable cause of rising cases was still under investigation.

Meanwhile, Shahid Jameel, a top virologist in India, said that the rise in the number of cases in Punjab could be attributed to a mutation of the coronavirus. However, he added that the N440K variant exists here for quite a long time and it has to be epidemiologically checked before inferring its role behind the recent spike.

“There’s always a possibility for a single or multiple mutation to cause a spike in cases. Having said that, we should not forget that N440K has been in India for quite some time now and it was also found in several other states, including those which are not reporting any surge currently,” he clarified.

“Its mere detection does not substantiate the variant’s role behind the spurt in cases. N440K has been found in several other states as well. Epidemiological connection of the variant with the spike (in cases) should be investigated before arriving at any conclusion,” added Jameel, who is also the director of Trivedi School of Biosciences at Ashoka University.