Covid-19 'double mutant' found in India

India reported a new variant of the Covid-19 virus on Wednesday as the government struggled with the highest single-day tally of new infections and deaths this year.

The variant, described by officials as a "double mutant", has been found in more than 200 samples in the hardest-hit Maharashtra state, which is home to India's financial capital Mumbai.

Health officials said the new variant has not been detected in large enough numbers to link it to the surge in cases in Maharashtra and other states including Kerala and Punjab.

Epidemiologists said the term "double mutant" refers to an entirely new variant that has the characteristics of two already identified variants.

"Double mutant is not a scientific term. It is just another mutant which seems to be unique to India," said Mr Ramanan Laxminarayan, founder of the Centre for Disease Dynamics, Economics & Policy in New Delhi.

"Is there a reason to be worried about this particular variant? Not as yet, because we have no evidence that these variants are more transmissible or more lethal than what we already have."

About 20 per cent of the samples that contained the new variant in Maharashtra were found in the city of Nagpur, a key commercial and logistics hub, the director of the National Centre for Disease Control, Mr Sujeet Kumar Singh, told a news conference.

The variant is evolving, he said, adding that nine such samples were also found in New Delhi, which has seen a steady rise in infections over the last few weeks.

India recorded its highest single-day Covid-19 count in over five months on Wednesday with 53,364 people testing positive. The last time the country surpassed this tally was on Oct 23 last year when 54,350 cases were recorded.

For the second consecutive day, the deaths from Covid-19 also breached the 200 mark - with 248 succumbing to the virus on Wednesday. The number was 276 on Tuesday.

Since last Friday, active cases across the country have risen by more than 100,000. It stood at 396,889 on Tuesday.

Most of the new infections were recorded in Maharashtra, which reported its highest count of 31,855 on Wednesday. Gujarat, too, recorded its highest count with 1,790 cases on Wednesday.

Nineteen other states and union territories also logged their highest number since January or earlier - including Karnataka (2,298 cases, highest since Nov 11), Tamil Nadu (1,636, highest since Nov 22) and Delhi (1,254, highest since Dec 18).

With 11.7 million cases, India has reported the highest number of Covid-19 infections after the United States and Brazil. Several states have announced a ban on large gatherings ahead of the Hindu festival of Holi this weekend.

The Central government also announced it is expanding its nationwide inoculation campaign to include everyone above the age of 45 from next month. India has so far administered more than 52 million doses.

In a bid to vaccinate more people, the government on Wednesday put a temporary halt on all major exports of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 shot made by the Serum Institute of India, the world's biggest vaccine-maker.

Reuters

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