The UN health agency said the B.1.617 variant of Covid-19, first found in India in October, had been detected in sequences uploaded to the GISAID open-access database “from 44 countries in all six WHO regions,” adding it had received “reports of detections from five additional countries”.
The UN health agency further said that “WHO has received reports of detections from five additional countries” in its weekly epidemiological update on the pandemic.
Besides India, it warned that Britain had reported the largest number of Covid cases caused by the variant.
It may be noted that earlier this week, the WHO had declared B.1.617 — which counts three so-called sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics — as a “variant of concern”.
It was therefore added to the list containing three other variants of Covid-19 — those first detected in Britain, Brazil and South Africa.
The variants are seen as more dangerous than the original version of the virus because they are either being more transmissible, deadly or able to get past some vaccine protections.
The WHO explained that B.1.617 was added to the list because it appears to be transmitting more easily than the original virus, pointing to the “rapid increases in prevalence in multiple countries”.
WHO also pointed to “preliminary evidence” that the variant was more resistant to treatment with the monoclonal antibody Bamlanivimab, and also highlighted early lab studies indicating “limited reduction in neutralisation by antibodies”.
It stressed, though, that “real-world impacts” on the effectiveness of vaccines against the variant for instance “may be limited”.
WHO said the spread of B.1.617, alongside other more transmittable variants, appeared to be one of several factors fuelling India’s dramatic surge in new cases and deaths.
India, a country of 1.3 billion people, is the world’s second-most infected after the United States with nearly 23 million Covid-19 cases, and is currently recording more than 300,000 new cases and close to 4,000 deaths each day.
The new surge in cases has ravaged major cities, including the capital New Delhi and financial hub Mumbai, pushing hospitals to breaking point and leading to severe shortages in oxygen and beds.
“WHO found that resurgence and acceleration of Covid-19 transmission in India had several potential contributing factors, including increase in the proportion of cases of SARS-CoV-2 variants with potentially increased transmissibility,” it said.
It also pointed to “several religious and political mass gathering events which increased social mixing; and, under-use of and reduced adherence to public health and social measures”.
“The exact contributions of each of these factors on increased transmission in India are not well understood.”
WHO stressed that so far, only 0.1 percent of positive Covid tests in India had been genetically sequenced and uploaded to the GISAID database to identify the variant in question.
The UN health agency also said that India accounted for 46% of the new COVID-19 cases recorded worldwide last week.
The surge of the coronavirus in India, including of a highly infectious new variant first identified there, has seen hospitals runs out of beds and oxygen, and morgues and crematoriums overflowing. Many people have died in ambulances and car parks waiting for a bed or oxygen.
Worldwide, 5.7 million new cases were reported last week and more than 93,000 deaths, the WHO said in its weekly epidemiological report. India reported nearly 2.6 million new cases, a 20% increase on the previous week, and 23,231 deaths.
There are signs that India`s outbreak is spreading to its neighbours.