WHO Variants of Concern: Two out of four in SL 

  • Alpha from UK, Delta from India, named 

  • UK strain blamed for current spread 

  • 2 doses needed for max protection against Delta 

  • Only 2 mutations per month; only VOC mutations a threat 

By Aazam Ameen


Out of the four Covid-19 variants of concern (VOCs) which have been identified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to date, two of them, namely B.1.1.7 Alpha of UK origin and B.1.617.2 Delta of Indian origin, have been identified in Sri Lanka, The Sunday Morning learnt. 

Explaining further, Sri Jayewardenepura University’s Allergy, Immunology, and Cell Biology Unit Director Dr. Chandima Jeewandara told The Sunday Morning that if any variant of Covid-19 displays one of the following four characteristics – high transmissibility, severe disease or increase in mortality among those infected, the evasion of vaccine induced or natural immunity, interference with diagnostic methods – an spreads within a certain geographic area, it would be classified as a variant of interest (VOI) by the WHO. In the event a VOI persists, he noted that the WHO will change its status to a VOC. 

Even though the Delta variant has been identified in the country, Dr. Jeewandara said that it had been detected in an individual at a quarantine centre; therefore, the variant has not spread within the community. 

However, if the Delta variant is to enter the community, Dr. Jeewandara noted that the potential complications associated with such an event would mainly involve its transmissibility and reaction to vaccination. 

“The Alpha variant is 50% more transmissible than the naturally occurring non-mutated wild type strain of the virus. In terms of the Delta variant, it has been shown to be more transmissible than the Alpha variant. With regard to the vaccination, when the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine is administered, the effectiveness of the dose against the Delta variant would only be around 30%. In order to obtain optimum protection, both doses must be administered,” he explained. 

He also said that another VOC identified as the B.1.351 Beta variant of South African origin was identified in Sri Lanka on two occasions, about a month ago; but due to the fact that these detections were also reported from foreign returnees in quarantine centres, the variant was contained. 

When queried as to whether it is possible for further mutations of the virus to occur in Sri Lanka, Dr. Jeewandara explained that the mutation rate of any virus is two mutations per month, adding that such mutations take place in every country. 

Despite this, he noted that a mutation will pose a threat only if the WHO declares it as a VOC. Supporting this with an example, he highlighted the case of Sri Lanka’s own B.1.411 variant, which was a mutation of the Covid-19 virus first detected in Tissamaharama. 

“B.1.411 was a variant which was present in Sri Lanka for a long period of time. The majority of the cases were asymptomatic. We consider it as an innocent variant as we did not face any issues such as high mortality or significant spreading, and therefore, it did not pose much of a problem to Sri Lanka,” Dr. Jeewandara further pointed out. 

According to Dr. Jeewandara, the current surge in cases can be attributed to the B.1.1.7 Alpha variant of Covid-19. 

When questioned about certain media reports which were circulating recently about the identification of a new airborne Covid-19 variant, Dr. Jeewandara dismissed such claims as false. “I am in charge of all communications from this unit and I must say that the rumours about the airborne variant are not true. Certain media outlets had reported this claiming that it was a statement made by Prof. Neelika Malavige also attached to the university,” he clarified.