The South African Covid-19 strain has been detected in four Indian returnees and the Brazil variant in one, the health ministry said on Tuesday, amid concerns over the rise in the number of cases in Maharashtra.
The Union health ministry is holding discussions with the civil aviation ministry to put in place a mechanism to monitor air traffic from South Africa and Brazil and contain the spread of these variants.
“Our experience with the UK variant taught us that testing after disembarkation and then genome sequencing positive samples was very effective. We will deploy a similar strategy for South Africa and Brazil flights as well,” said Rajesh Bhushan, health secretary. However, unlike the UK, which had direct flights to India, most flights from South Africa and Brazil are routed through different sectors.
Both the South African and Brazilian strains have a mutation in the receptor binding domain of the virus, which makes it easier for the virus to bind itself to the lungs. All five people and their contacts have been tested and quarantined.
While the South African variant was detected in passengers who arrived in January, the Brazilian variant was detected in a returnee in the first week of February.
A majority of cases in South Africa are due to the new variant, which has multiple mutations. It has spread to 44 countries. The Brazilian strain, which has increased transmissibility, has been found in 15 countries. The Indian Council of Medical Research and National Institute of Virology, Pune, have managed to isolate and culture this variant, which would help in research and detection.
The health ministry, concerned over the rise in cases in Maharashtra at a time when the overall active case count is reducing in the country, has asked states to increase RT-PCR testing. Maharashtra reported 3,365 new cases on Tuesday, which was the highest single-day tally in the country. Kerala and Maharashtra account for over 70 per cent of the total active cases in the country. “Central teams were deputed in the two states and they have been given some guidance and instruction, which would help in bringing the situation under control,” Bhushan added.
V K Paul, member (health) of NITI Aayog, said it was found that over time testing had reduced in Maharashtra, which needs to be ramped up. In Kerala, too, Paul said there was an increase after the festive season.
Stressing the need to continue taking precautionary measures and improve surveillance systems, Paul added, “We are also seeing that the virus is moving to smaller cities to vulnerable populations there now...There is no reason for us to be lax even if the situation seems to be improving. There is no guarantee that we would not see another surge.”
The government is also examining some ‘guidance’ they have received regarding increasing the gap between the two doses of Covishield vaccine which is presently being followed up at four to six weeks interval. “The technical group on vaccination will examine this issue and recommendations will be made in the best interest by scientists and experts. The regulator has given its recommendation based on some data and we should adopt that,” Paul said.