The new cases confirmed in Melbourne this week have been identified as belonging to the B.1.617 lineage of the virus, colloquially known as the "Indian variant". According to Professor Sutton, while it usually took between six and seven days for a person to pass on COVID-19 after becoming infected, current cases were being transmitted "within a day".
"Unless something drastic happens, this will become increasingly uncontrollable," he warned. The variant has also worried health officials elsewhere, with Public Health England, for example, declaring B.1.617.2 to be a "variant of concern" on May 6, and the World Health Organization (WHO) following suit on May 12.
Online, however, some social media users have suggested there is something amiss in the way the virus has spread from India to other countries. "Amazingly the Indian variant chose England rather than 8 countries on its way 4,688," one widely shared Facebook post reads. "Could have just gone 5 miles to Pakistan. Turn the News off you fools."
But the inference that the B.1.617 variant has not spread to Pakistan or other countries lying between India and the UK is incorrect. A recent WHO epidemiological update put the number of countries which have recorded cases stemming from B.1.617 at 44. According to fact checkers at UK-based Full Fact, the variant has "been found across many continents, and many countries ‘between India and the UK' ".
"Many other countries have also sequenced cases of the B.1.617 variants, including countries across Asia, South-East Asia, Australia, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, North America, South America, Central America and the Caribbean," Full Fact noted. "The UK, however, has sequenced the highest number of cases."
Additionally, a report published in Asia Times found that denials from Pakistani officials that the variant had entered the country ignored the fact that the nation did not have testing kits able to detect the variant.
"Research institutions in Pakistan have detected some 'unknown variant' constituting 15 per cent of the country's total infections that may be the Indian variant, but the lack of specialised testing kits has hampered the identification process," the report said.
With the World Health Organization (WHO) now classifying the B.1.617 strain of COVID-19 a 'variant of concern', worries have surfaced regarding the efficacy of vaccines currently being rolled out.
However, according to a study by U.S. scientists at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and NYU Langone Center, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines still remain highly effective against the deadly 'double mutant'.
The lab-based study, which has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, posits that the vaccines' antibodies are slightly weaker against variants, "but not enough that we think it would have much of an effect on the protective ability of the vaccines," said the study's senior author, Nathaniel "Ned" Landau.
Researchers looked at blood samples taken from people who already got a Pfizer or Moderna jab in the U.S. Scientists exposed these blood samples to pseudovirus particles (viruses produced in a lab for research purposes, or extracted from a natural infection) that displayed the same characteristics of the Indian B.1.617 and B.1.618 COVID-19 variants.
Following exposure to pseudovirus particles, the team then introduced the mixture to lab-grown cells in order to observe just how many samples would be infected by the new variants. They were able to observe changes thanks to a luminous enzyme called luciferase, which the pseudovirus particles contained. For context, fireflies also use luciferase to light up at night.
The result? Well, it would be naïve to assume that the Pfizer and Moderna blood samples remained just as strong as they were before being introduced to the variants. For the B.1.617 variant, the blood samples saw an almost four-fold decrease in the amount of neutralizing antibodies, which are proteins created by the immune system to prevent the invasion of pathogens. On the other hand, blood samples exposed to the B.1.618 variant only experienced a three-fold decrease.
"In other words, some of the antibodies now don't work anymore against the variants, but you still have a lot of antibodies that do work against the variants," Landau said, pointing out that there are still enough neutralizing antibodies left to fight pathogens.
Even when compared to blood samples of people who recovered from un-mutated COVID-19, numbers are still quite high. More studies still need to be conducted in order to figure out if the vaccines will be effective in real-world scenarios.
Scientists also need to consider the possibility that these vaccines might not be as effective if and when newer variants come into play. That's because these (so far non-existent) future variants might be a lot stronger and more resilient to vaccines than the variants currently identified.