India on Thursday called for rigorous screening and testing of fliers coming from South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana, where a new variant of COVID-19 has been found with multiple mutations that have led to a surge in infections.
In a letter to states and union territories, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan asked them to ensure that samples of travellers turning positive are sent to designated genome sequencing laboratories promptly. The contacts of these international travellers must also be closely tracked and tested as per Health Ministry guidelines, he said.
"lt has now been reported by NCDC (National Centre for Disease Control) that multiple cases of a COVID-19 variant B.1.1529 have been reported in Botswana (3 cases), South Africa (6 cases) and Honk Kong (1 case). This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country, in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel," the letter read.
"lt is therefore imperative that all international travellers travelling from and transiting through these countries, (they are part of the 'at risk' country category of international travellers coming to India) and also including all other 'at risk' countries indicated in the revised guidelines for international arrivals issued by this Ministry, dated 11.11.2021, are subjected to rigorous screening and testing, as per MoHFW Guidelines. The contacts of these international travellers must also be closely tracked and tested as per MoHFW guidelines," it said.
The new variant of COVID-19, feared to have a high amount of spike mutations, has been detected in South Africa and other counties, with authorities there confirming 22 positive cases associated with it on Thursday. The number of daily infections in Africa's hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month.
A virologist at Imperial College London, Dr Tom Peacock, had posted details of the new variant, classed as B.1.1.529, on his Twitter account earlier this week, following which scientists have been weighing in on what is being considered a variant of concern though it is yet to be formally categorised in the UK.
Scientists around the world will be watching the new variant for signs of gaining momentum or spreading more widely and rapidly. The high number of spike mutations are concerning from the point of view of both higher transmissibility and immune evasion.
The WHO said it is "closely monitoring" the reported variant and is expected to convene a technical meeting on Friday to determine if it should be designated a variant of "interest" or of "concern".