Even as India continues to grapple with the novel coronavirus crisis, the National Institute of Virology, Pune, has detected a new COVID-19 variant in India- B.18.104.22.168. This was revealed in a study conducted by 13 scientists including ICMR Director-General Dr Balram Bhargava which is yet to be published and peer-reviewed. Isolated from the nasal/throat swabs of international travellers returning to India from the United Kingdom and Brazil, the strain's pathogenicity was demonstrated in the Syrian hamster model and compared with the B.1 variant. The clinical samples of two COVID-19 patients who do not have any co-morbidities and remained asymptomatic until their recovery were used for this purpose.
The experiment was performed with the approval of the Institutional Animal Ethics Committee and as per the guidelines of the Committee for the Purpose of Control and Supervision of Experiments on Animals. The B.1 and B.22.214.171.124 variants were injected into two separate groups of 9 Syrian hamsters who were observed for 7 days. Thereafter, three hamsters each were sacrificed on day 3, 5 and 7 to study the viral load, antibody response and lung pathology.
The study revealed that the new variant induced body weight loss, viral replication in the respiratory tract and severe lung pathology in infected Syrian hamsters. Found more pathogenic than B.1, the B.126.96.36.199 strain is likely to cause severe symptoms. Observing that increased disease severity and neutralization reduction are of great concern, the scientists highlighted the need for screening the COVID-19 vaccines for efficacy against this variant.