What do the new travel guidelines state? Are existing vaccines in India effective against these strains?
The story so far: The Central government confirmed this week the presence of three mutant variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus — from South Africa (four cases), Brazil (one case) and the U.K. (187 cases). Following this, the government issued a fresh set of guidelines for international travel. The new rules, which will come into effect at 11.59 p.m. on February 22, were released on Wednesday and state that “based on the risk assessment, this document shall be reviewed from time to time”.
Why are the new strains of concern?
The World Health Organization reports that the new variants demonstrate increased transmissibility. The strains from the U.K, South Africa and Brazil have so far been detected in 86, 44 and 15 countries respectively. “While India has stabilised its active COVID-19 cases, these new strains and any laxity could prompt a surge in numbers,” said NITI Aayog member V.K. Paul.
What do the new travel guidelines state?
While India does not have direct flights from South Africa and Brazil, all international travellers coming from or transiting through flights originating from the U.K., Europe and West Asia are required to submit a self-declaration form online, carry a negative COVID-19 report, and mention their travel history for the past 14 days. They also need to mention whether they plan to disembark at the arrival airport or take further flights within India.
Airlines are to identify travellers arriving from or transiting through the U.K., South Africa and Brazil and segregate them during the journey and while deboarding. These travellers will have to give their samples for testing before exiting the airport. If they test positive, they have to undergo treatment as per the standard health protocol, the SOP states. The guidelines specify that contacts of suspect cases are the co-passengers seated in the same row, three rows in front and three rows behind, along with identified cabin crew. Community contacts of travellers who have tested positive (during the home quarantine period) would be subjected to institutional quarantine in separate quarantine centres for 14 days and tested as per the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) protocol.
International travellers have to submit a self-declaration form before their travel and upload a negative COVID-19 RT-PCR report, with the test having been conducted 72 hours prior to undertaking the journey. Passengers also have to submit a declaration for the authenticity of the report, and if found otherwise, they will be liable for criminal prosecution. Only those travelling to India for emergencies, such as the death of a family member, will be allowed to arrive without a negative report. But they should seek exemption on the online portal 72 hours before boarding.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in consultation with the Ministry of Civil Aviation, said they issued these guidelines after reviewing the situation with regard to point of entry actions and that these measures have been brought in to minimise the risk of import of mutant strains of the virus.
How many cases has India recorded?
The ICMR has said the South Africa variant, which first emerged independently in the country in mid-December 2020, has undergone multiple mutations, including in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein. Currently, a majority of cases in South Africa are due to this variant. In India, the strain was detected in four different South Africa returnees in January 2021 — one each from Angola and Tanzania, and two from South Africa, said ICMR Director-General Balram Bhargava.
He added that the first six cases of the U.K. strain were reported in India in the last week of December 2020.
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On the Brazil strain, the ICMR noted that it emerged independently in Brazil in early January 2021 and is linked to the rise in cases in Brazil, particularly in Manaus. “Mutations in the receptor-binding domain of the spike protein were detected and it has shown increased transmissibility. India detected a case of this variant strain in a Brazil returnee in the first week of February,” said Dr. Bhargava.
Are existing vaccines in India effective against these strains?
On the U.K. variant, the ICMR said the neutralisation potential matches other heterologous virus strains in India and the vaccines that we have.
For the other two variants, research is ongoing. “The ICMR-National Institute of Virology (NIV) is attempting to isolate and culture the South Africa strain,” said Dr. Bhargava. The Brazil strain has been successfully isolated and cultured at ICMR-NIV, Pune and experiments to assess vaccine effectiveness are underway, he added.
How are the variants being monitored?
To monitor the genomic variations in the SARS-CoV-2 on a regular basis through a multi-laboratory network, India has set-up the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG), comprising 10 labs. “The consortium will ascertain the status of the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 in the country, establish a sentinel surveillance for early detection of genomic variants with public health implication, and determine the genomic variants in the unusual events/trends (super-spreader events, high mortality/morbidity trend areas etc.),” said Dr. Bhargava. “Knowledge generated through this vital research consortium will also assist in developing diagnostics and potential therapeutics and vaccines in the future.”