Amid a deepening crisis in India, the World Health Organization announced Monday that it had designated the B.1.617 variant, which has been growing more common in the country, as a variant of concern. Scientists still don’t know much about the variant yet, but they are worried that it may be helping to fuel the rise in the nation’s coronavirus infections, which experts say are likely undercounted.
“There is increased transmissibility demonstrated by some preliminary studies” of the variant, said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead of the W.H.O.’s coronavirus response.
Dr. Van Kerkhove also said that a study of a limited number of patients, which had not yet been peer reviewed, suggested that antibodies from vaccines or infections with other variants might not be quite as effective against B.1.617. However, the agency said that vaccines will likely remain potent enough to provide protection against B.1.617.
More details will be released in a report on Tuesday, Dr. Van Kerkhove said.
The variant was first detected in India at the end of 2020 but became more common in the country starting in March. It has since been found in 32 countries including the United States and the United Kingdom. The W.H.O.’s announcement comes as growing numbers of medical experts are adding their voices to a chorus of condemnation of the Indian government’s response and calling for nationwide restrictions to try to limit the horrifying death toll.
Although the official figures are already staggering — more than 350,000 new infections daily this month and nearly 250,000 total deaths — some experts say that the numbers are a vast undercount and estimate that India is on pace to suffer more than one million deaths by August.
Initially, the W.H.O. classified B.1.617 as a “variant of interest,” because it had certain mutations that have been linked to higher transmission and the potential to evade vaccines. At a news conference on Monday, agency officials announced they were elevated it to a higher level.
Other variants of concern include B.1.1.7, which was first identified in the United Kingdom, and P.1, which was originally detected in Brazil.
But experts caution that it’s not yet clear just how much of a factor B.1.617 has played in the catastrophic rise in cases in India. They point to a perfect storm of public health blunders, such as permitting massive political rallies and religious festivals in recent months.
“I am concerned about 617 — I think we have to keep a very close eye on it,” said Kristian Andersen, a virologist at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. But he cautioned that relatively few variant samples are being analyzed in India, making it hard to know just how dangerous B.1.617 is. “We really, really need better data out of India,” he said.