It is not difficult to trace ‘Sars-CoV-2’ back to its origin. It began with symptoms. By way of etymology, ‘Sars’ is short for severe acute respiratory syndrome, a euphemism for a sliding scale of suffocation suffered by those sickened by an outbreak nearly two decades ago. It was caused by a tiny virus that was magnified and seen to have spikes, and so it acquired the prefix ‘corona’, Latin for ‘crown’, which serves as a descriptor for any such pathogen with hooks that help it cling to human cells. ‘Coronavirus’ had four syllables too many, at least for the snappy age of social media, and once the new killer of 2019 was loaded with a ‘novel’, it was a relief to have that word snipped to CoV. This was a surprise only for how long it took. Like much else about the current pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) was late on nomenclature. But what Geneva eventually gave us in February 2020 has stuck. The name ‘covid’ is an easy- to-say contraction of ‘coronaviral disease’, though its suffix ‘19’ is rather clunky. Even ‘Sars-CoV-2’, a label given first by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses, has a certain ring to it. With its serial number, it even evokes a world war, an entirely new form of which must be waged if we are to end this menace. Information is our best weapon.
Not only must the enigma of Sars-CoV-2’s mutation path be cracked, a job for scientists, its genetic variants need to be kept firmly on our screens of surveillance as they disperse into an alphanumeric jumble of lineages. The names of these strains needed to be rescued from epidemobabble, too, and for this, again, we have the WHO to thank. The ‘double mutant’ that we discovered last year in India, B.1.617, got geotagged as the ‘Indian variant’ by media outlets elsewhere, and this had exposed our diaspora to angry glares and other ills of group stigmatization. Just as China sloughed off ‘Wuhan’ as a label for the virus found there, we should be able to rid this one of its geotag now that the WHO has rolled out a string of Greek letters for easy reference. The ‘variant of concern’ found in the UK, B.1.1.7, is now known as Alpha, while the one spotted in South Africa is called Beta and the Brazilian find is Gamma. Next in this order is Delta, which is the new name for B.1.617.2, a descendant of our desi variant, the first version of which, B.1.617.1, has just been named Kappa. Both these are highly infectious, but it’s how we deal with Delta that could make all the difference to our battleplan.
On the mapping of variants, we need to ascend a quick learning curve. Our genomic studies have been much too slow. At the start of India’s second wave, the north had a chunk of Alpha cases, while the west had either Kappa or Delta. As this wave crested in May, the more contagious strains must have gained a larger share of infections. But we lack clarity on this, which makes it hard to assess threat levels. How dominant is Delta? Unlike the UK, we do not have up-to-date data. It’s very important that we do. Recall that a recent British study showed that a single dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, used as Covishield here, is not effective enough against B.1.617.2, and a second dose just about qualifies as protection against severe illness. A domestic Covaxin study had earlier found it plausibly useful in generating an immune response to fend off this variant, but, given the limitations of that research, not conclusively so. To win this war, we need to track the virus in all its variety. A sharper strategy could make the ‘delta’ difference we need.
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