Bengaluru/New Delhi: India’s Ministry of Electronics and IT (MEITY) issued an advisory on May 21 addressed to “all social media platforms”, demanding that they not identify the B.1.617 variant of the novel coronavirus as the “Indian variant”.
“It has come to our knowledge that a false statement is being circulated online which implies that an ‘Indian variant’ of corona virus (sic) is spreading across the countries. This is completely FALSE,” the advisory reads. “There is no such variant of COVID-19 scientifically cited as such by the World Health Organisation (WHO). WHO has not associated the term ‘Indian variant’ with the B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus in any of its reports.”
The advisory asks that social media platforms “remove all the content that names, refers to, or implies ‘Indian variant’ of corona virus … immediately”. Though the ministry’s note does not cite its powers under the Information Technology Act or stipulate a deadline for compliance, it is signed by its ‘Group Coordinator (Cyber Laws and E-Security)’ and refers to earlier advisories “regarding curbing of false news / misinformation concerning coronavirus on social media platforms.”
The advisory’s forceful wording is at odds with the gravity of the situation – the second wave of COVID-19 may have peaked but daily new infections remain above 250,000 and deaths more than 4,000 – and suggests the ministry wishes to forestall accusations of the government’s widely criticised response to India’s COVID-19 epidemic.
The past few weeks have seen a lot of misinformation about the coronavirus being spread by politicians and godmen in India – including the use of bovine excreta – but this is the first time the IT ministry has chosen to write to social media companies about ‘false news’.
India’s official prickliness over the casual (if technically mistaken) use of a geographical marker to describe coronavirus variants is also at odds with what has been seen elsewhere. For example, senior government officials in the UK and South Africa have themselves referred to variants first reported from their countries as “the UK variant” and “the South Africa variant” and the governments there have not sent advisories demanding that the media stop using these names.
Earlier, the Union health ministry had issued a press release on the same topic. “Several media reports have covered the news of World Health Organisation (WHO) classifying B.1.617 as variant of global concern,” it read. “Some of these reports have termed the B.1.617 variant of the coronavirus as an ‘Indian variant’. These media reports are without any basis, and unfounded.”
But the health ministry has also identified the B.1.1.7 variant as “the UK variant” in its press briefings, though the basis for that naming is as “unfounded”.
There are also many diseases and disease-causing pathogens that have been named after countries and regions that they have been historically associated with – such as the West Nile virus and Japanese encephalitis.
The B.1.617 variant is one of the world’s major variants of concern. The others are B.1.1.7 (originally reported from the UK), B.1.351 (South Africa) and P.1 (Brazil).
The B.1.1.7, B.1.351 and P.1 variants were first known as “the UK variant”, “the South Africa variant” and “the Brazil variant”, in that order. Though scientists and journalists around the world have cautioned that associating them with specific countries could direct hateful rhetoric against people from there, these names have caught on and are widely used in the media.
These concerns were founded on reports that former US President Donald Trump’s and other leaders’ poor choice of words had opened up people of Asian origin to hate speech and racial discrimination.
“Since the outbreak of the pandemic, Asians and people of Asian descent have been targets of derogatory language in media reports and statements by politicians as well as on social media platforms, where hate speech related to COVID-19 also appears to have spread extensively,” Human Rights Watch reported in May 2020. “US President Donald Trump’s use of the term ‘Chinese virus’ and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s use of ‘Wuhan virus’ may have encouraged the use of hate speech in the US.”
In response to these and other expressions of concern, the WHO’s director-general asked the body’s secretariat to “develop standardised definitions and nomenclature of SARS-CoV-2 virus variants, based on their genetic sequence, that avoids stigmatisation and is geographically and politically neutral.” WHO chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan has said the system should become operational soon.
The strains’ more “politically neutral” names, also their official names, are based on their mutations and the naming convention used to identify them.
The virus makes ‘mistakes’ when copying its genome as it replicates, and the altered genome is thus said to have mutations. “A typical SARS-CoV-2 virus accumulates only two single-letter mutations per month in its genome,” according to Nature.
As mutations accumulate, new strains of the virus appear in the population. Some mutations confer advantages to the virus, such as greater infectivity or ability to evade the human immune system. Each mutation doesn’t confer a distinct advantage, however. We don’t yet know which combination of mutations gives rise to which ‘ability’.
A combination of mutations that makes the virus fitter allows the corresponding strain to become more common in the population.
B.1.617 has thus far spread to more than 50 countries on all continents except Antarctica. It is also becoming the more common variant circulating in many parts of India.
This variant was previously called the “double mutant” because of two mutations in the virus’s spike protein (E484Q and L452R). However, B.1.617 has three major mutations in the spike protein (P681R being the other one), and at least 13 mutations overall.
The MEITY advisory has emerged in the context of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s claim that the B.1.617 variant spreading in Singapore will affect children more. Kejriwal also asked for flights between India and the island nation to be suspended. The suggestion drew a rebuke from India’s aviation minister and a threat of legal action from the Singapore government, which noted:
“The strain that is prevalent in many of the COVID-19 cases detected in Singapore in recent weeks is the B.1.617.2 variant, which originated from India.”