A model of the spike protein of the novel coronavirus. Photo: NIAID/Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Virologist Shahid Jameel said while the current COVID-19 situation in India is under control, two variants of the novel coronavirus recently identified in South Africa contain mutations that could make them more infectious and virulent.
In an interview with Karan Thapar for The Wire, Jameel said the two variants – BA.4 and BA.5 and, possibly, BA.2.12.1 – contain the L452R mutation (in the case of BA.4 and BA.5) or the L452Q mutation (in the case of BA.2.12.1) ,alongside the other mutations of the omicron variant. Thus, according to Jameel, these three sub-variants could have the potential to be as infectious as omicron and the potential to be as virulent as delta.
Jameel said as yet in South Africa, BA.4 and BA.5 have not lived up to their threat potential but these are very early days. They have only fairly recently been identified. Second, we don’t know if they will spread beyond South Africa. But the possibility of both happening is there. This is why BA.4 and BA.5 are very worrying.
In the interview, Jameel explains in great detail why he is concerned about the L452R mutation. He cites findings by a Japanese paper and another paper done in Beijing to substantiate his concern.
The L452Q mutation in BA.2.12.1 is similar but not identical to the L452R mutation. We need to, as he put it, “watch carefully” to see how this behaves.
The second point made by Jameel is when he said INSACOG is not working as effectively as it needs to. He said this is “worrying”. As a former head of INSACOG, he said he is “very disappointed”. He also said that he believes this is a result of political interference.
The points Jameel made about INSACOG include the following: first, since January 10, INSACOG has not made public or, at least, easily accessible the results of the sequencing it has done. Jameel also said the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB) is no longer part of INSACOG.
This is of concern because IGIB, as he put it, is “the most advanced analysis lab” in the country. He also said he believes the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) is no longer involved in sequencing. Third, Anurag Agrawal, who was gead of IGIB, has left the institue.
Most importantly, Jameel said there is no longer a common portal so all the different institutions that comprise INSACOG can see what each of them is doing. This, he said, makes it very difficult to learn from each other in terms of successes and failures.
To sum up, he said: “The co-operative spirit of INSACOG no longer appears to exist.”
Speaking about boosters, Jameel said they should be given freely to every single person over the age of 18. He also said the gap between the second jab and the booster should be reduced from 9 months to something around 5 or 6.