A virus variant that has been spreading rapidly in India and designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organization might be more contagious than most versions of the coronavirus, the U.N. agency said in a report it published on Tuesday evening.
The W.H.O. emphasized in its report that it wasn’t yet clear how much the variant, known as B.1.617, had contributed to the devastating surge that has crushed India in recent weeks. It cautioned that India, like many countries, is only sequencing a tiny fraction of positive samples, and that with so little surveillance, it’s difficult to make firm conclusions about B.1.617.
The W.H.O. study comes amid growing condemnation of the Indian government’s response to its ferocious virus wave and calls for nationwide restrictions to try to limit the death toll, as hospitals are overrun and crematories burn nonstop.
India recorded more than 360,000 new cases on Wednesday and more than 4,200 deaths, the country’s highest daily death toll since the pandemic began. India has now reported more than 250,000 deaths from the virus, although experts believe that the true toll is far higher.
Experts also caution that it is not yet clear just how much of a factor B.1.617 has played in the explosion of cases in India. They point to a perfect storm of public health blunders, such as permitting enormous political rallies and religious festivals in recent months. It’s possible that the variant is being lifted up by the surge, rather than the other way around.
The W.H.O. speculated that another variant known as B.1.1.7, first identified in Britain and now dominant in the United States, might also be driving the swell in cases.
It’s not yet clear whether B.1.617 causes more severe Covid-19. Anecdotally, doctors in India are reporting higher numbers of young people and children testing positive for the virus and more patients with severe disease requiring oxygen support. But until more genetic sequencing is done, it’s impossible to know if the variant is to blame.
Stacia Wyman, a genomics scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, said that the W.H.O. had made the right decision. She pointed to the fact that the variant had already spread to at least 49 countries. “This appears to be posing the biggest threat right now in terms of transmissibility, with many countries reporting increasing trajectories of the B.1.617 variant,” she said.
B.1.617 is the fourth variant of concern recognized by the W.H.O. The others include B.1.1.7; B.1.351, which swept through South Africa; and P.1, which has devastated Brazil.
B.1.617 first came to light in October 2020. It had a number of mutations, some of which have been proved worrisome in other variants. Preliminary studies on the mutations suggest that some of them might give the coronavirus a tighter grip on cells, increasing their chances of a successful infection.
Other mutations could make it more difficult for antibodies produced by infections with other variants to stick to them. Studies on antibodies produced by vaccinated people also suggest that they work less successfully against B.1.617. Experts expect that most vaccines will remain effective against the variant.
W.H.O. researchers determined that B.1.617 is spreading fast in India, making up over 28 percent of samples from positive tests. The shift suggests that B.1.617 has a higher growth rate than other variants circulating in India, with the possible exception of B.1.1.7. And B.1.617 has been growing rapidly in Britain.
Gagandeep Kang, a pre-eminent Indian virologist, said there was not enough data to conclude whether either variant was contributing to India’s deadlier second wave.
“There is some conflicting data regarding the B.1.1.7 variant, which seems to indicate in some studies that it does cause more severe disease, in other studies not,” said Dr. Kang, the executive director of the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in India.
Based on reports from hospitals, Dr. Kang said, it appeared that B.1.617 was causing more severe disease but that, again, there was insufficient data to draw conclusions. She said that real-time genetic information would be needed to determine whether B.1.617-infected people needed more oxygen.
Officials in India are trying to track how many fully vaccinated people have fallen ill. If an unusual number of these so-called breakthroughs are caused by a variant such as B.1.617, then that could point to the variant’s ability to evade a vaccine.
Parents in South Carolina will be able to opt their children out of mask requirements in public schools, effectively ending mask mandates for schools throughout the state, according to an executive order signed by the governor that defies Centers for Disease Control and Protection guidance.
The order signed on Tuesday by Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, also prevented South Carolina’s local governments from using previously issued orders or states of emergency to enforce mask mandates and barred the use of “vaccine passports” in the state. South Carolina was one of several states that never had a statewide mask mandate, though several counties and cities imposed their own.
At least one school district said its legal counsel was reviewing the order. Doing away with masks in schools conflicts with C.D.C. guidance, which recommends universal masking combined with at least three feet of social distancing.
“Everybody knows what we need to do to stay safe — including wearing a mask if you’re at risk of exposing others — but we must move past the time of governments dictating when and where South Carolinians are required to wear a mask,” Mr. McMaster said in a statement, noting the availability of vaccines and falling coronavirus cases. “Maintaining the status quo ignores all of the great progress we’ve made.”
Mr. McHenry’s announcement comes as leaders in other states and cities have announced a rollback of restrictions and vaccines have become available to any adult. Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington said on Monday that most of the city’s restrictions, including capacity limits, time restrictions and limits on types of activities would be lifted on May 21. Capacity limits on bars, nightclubs, and large sports and entertainment venues would be lifted June 11.
Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia announced on Tuesday that all restrictions except the mask mandate would be lifted on June 11. The announcement came a week after Governor Tom Wolfe of Pennsylvania said that all restrictions related to gatherings, businesses and restaurants would be lifted on May 31 and that the statewide mask mandate would be lifted when 70 percent of adults in the state had been vaccinated. But the announcement came with the caveat that municipalities and school districts could continue or implement stricter mitigation efforts, despite the state’s easing restrictions.
The governor directed the Department of Health and Environmental Control and the Department of Education to develop a standardized form for opting out, the statement said.
Epidemiologists are starting to hug again, running errands, gathering outdoors with friends and getting haircuts.
In a new informal survey this month by The New York Times, 723 epidemiologists responded to questions about how they were navigating this in-between phase of the pandemic, when vaccines have become widespread and cases are declining but herd immunity is not assured and Covid-19 remains a threat.
More than at any time in the past year, most are feeling hopeful that Covid-19 will eventually become just another risk in daily life, but not one that paralyzes us.
Nevertheless, their advice was to hold on to most precautions just a bit longer.
“There is a strong likelihood that we will experience unexpected problems due to moving about as if the Covid pandemic was no longer a threat,” said Jana Mossey, an epidemiologist who retired from Drexel University.
“It is not ‘one size fits all,’” said Alicia Riley, a sociologist and epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, expressing a version of the profession’s unofficial motto: It depends. “How safe it is depends on the local levels of community transmission.”