The UK strain of the coronavirus, which is markedly more virulent, is more prevalent in several northern states, including Punjab, the genome sequencing data from the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) reveals. Two scientists from central government labs asserted that large gatherings in Punjab were responsible for the widespread transmission of the variant in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, said a report published in The Hindu.
The scientists claimed that farmers protests were one of the “super spreader” events that may have contributed to the amplified spread of the B.1.1.7 variant, popularly known as the UK variant.
“Punjab played a key role in the rise of cases related to the B.1.1.7 variant. There were at least four major clusters (super spreader events), marriages, farmer protests from February 1 to February 28, that are responsible for large spikes. By March, Delhi was warned about a possible 15,000 critical cases,” said Dr Sujeet Singh, who is a director at NCDC.
The NCDC is tasked with carrying out the genome sequencing data from the Indian Sars COV-2 Genome Consortium (INSACOG) — a team of 10 labs across India that is accumulating a small amount of COVID-19 positive samples from international travelers, their contacts as well from the local communities to check for patterns in mutations, especially known variants of concern (VoC) such as the UK variant, the South African variant (B.1.1.35) and the Brazil variant (P.1).
The NCDC has so far sequenced 15,000 samples of India’s caseloads, out of which 1,757 samples from the northern states reflected that the percentage of the UK variant was significantly higher than those isolated from international travelers and their contacts. The UK variant was found in 1,666 of the 1,757 samples genome sequenced by the NCDC.
Considering Punjab, there were eight instances of the UK strain found among international travellers and their contacts but 543 in the wider community. In Delhi, there were 91 instances of the UK strain among the international travellers against 323 in the wider community. In Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir, there were no reported variants in those with international travel history, but 26 and 23 cases in the local community were still found to have the UK strain.
However, the same pattern doesn’t hold in the central and southern states of India. Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where there are large COVID-19 caseloads, there were more instances of the UK variant in the travellers and their contacts than in the wider community. In Maharashtra, the ratio was 35: 29; in Kerala, it’s 15:1, and in Tamil Nadu, 14:1. These instances were in stark contrast to the situation in northern states.
Dr Anurag Agrawal, who serves as a Director at CSIR-IGIB, noted that the UK variant was imported in Delhi and Punjab because of the presence of the international airport and “significant amplifying events” in Punjab, which also contributed to spreading the strain to Delhi.
“It could have been maha panchayat, the farmer gatherings in Delhi, weddings. The only way to establish this is to check with donors of all these samples if they were present at protests,” he said.
The UK variant is amongst the most contagious strains of the coronavirus and is competing against the Indian variant (B.1.617). In the UK too, when the variant was first discovered, it was distinguished by increased instances of breathlessness and demand for oxygenation. This variant spreads more easily and quickly with 30-50% enhanced transmissibility than the original Chinese coronavirus that emerged in Wuhan.
NRI Belt of Punjab and the ‘farmers’ protests contributed to the spread of the more virulent UK coronavirus strain?
Earlier in March, it was reported that over 80% of cases in Punjab were due to the UK variant of the Chinese coronavirus. As per reports, the UK strain was first found mostly amongst the NRIs who had returned from the UK. As per reports, in March Kapurthala and Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar accounted for nearly 26 per cent of all COVID cases in Punjab. Punjab’s Doaba region comprising of these two districts contributed to 25.6% of all COVID related deaths on March 19. On April 5, it accounted for about 28% of COVID deaths in Punjab.
Doaba is also known as the ‘NRI belt’. It is also pertinent to note that ‘farmers’ from the Doaba region had continued their march towards Delhi for the protests. Perhaps, the protests and other super spreader events in Punjab may have contributed to the transmission of the UK strain in Singhu and other border areas of Delhi, from where they ultimately reached Delhi.