Another day, another variant. The latest incarnation of the coronavirus to raise concerns has been linked to Nepal, which has been hit by infections spilling over from the outbreak in India.

What is the Nepal variant?

Many scientists are asking the same question. There are thousands of variants of the coronavirus that cause Covid-19, but public health authorities focus only on those that have worrying-looking mutations or are demonstrably more dangerous. Public Health England calls these “variants under investigation” or “variants of concern” respectively. There is no Nepal variant under investigation or variant of concern according to PHE.

Where did the name come from?

The devastating outbreak in India has spread to Nepal. The country does not do much genomic sequencing, but among the variants identified, there is at least one case of Delta variant, first found in India, that carries a mutation called K417N. The same variant has been found in numerous countries including the UK, Portugal, the US and India. It has cropped up 14 times in Japan, and 13 of those samples were in travellers from Nepal. It is not clear, however, where the variant originated. In all, 91 cases have been logged in the Gisaid coronavirus database.

Why is it getting so much attention?

When the UK transport secretary, Grant Shapps, removed Portugal from the England’s travel “green list” on Thursday, he cited rising positivity rates and “a sort of Nepal mutation of the Indian variant that’s been detected”, adding “we just don’t know the potential for that to be a vaccine-defeating mutation and simply don’t want to take the risk as we come up to June 21 and the review of the fourth stage of the unlock”.

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 'Safety first': Grant Shapps on Portugal's removal from travel 'green list' – video
‘Safety first’: Grant Shapps on Portugal’s removal from travel ‘green list’ – video

Aren’t we supposed to avoid country names?

Yes. The World Health Organization has drawn up a naming system for coronavirus variants so as not to stigmatise the countries where they are first detected. Variants may well be found first in countries that do the most genomic sequencing. All of which suggests Shapps’s reference to a Nepal mutation was not quite on message. Under the new system, it is out with the Kent, South Africa, Brazil and India variants and in with Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

Could the variant evade vaccines?

The same K417N mutation is found in the Beta variant first detected in South Africa. The Beta variant is a concern because evidence suggests it is partially resistant to vaccines based on the original pandemic virus, and to immunity gained from previous Covid infection. The K417N mutation is believed to be part of the reason the Beta variant can evade vaccines to some degree, so when the highly transmissible Delta variant acquires the mutation, scientists are bound to pay attention.



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