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India Says New 'Delta Plus' Coronavirus Variant May Be More Transmissible

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

India confirmed about 50,000 new coronavirus infections today. That is a fraction of what it was seeing at its peak last month. So it looks like the world's biggest and deadliest COVID-19 wave may now be easing, but there is something new that could threaten that progress in India, as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: We're cutting across to breaking news that's coming in, worrying news of the Delta plus variant being detected now...

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: A mutated new form of the coronavirus's Delta variant first discovered in India. They're calling it Delta plus. Viruses mutate all the time, and not all variants are worrying. But the Indian government has classified this one as a variant of concern. Its genetic sequence suggests it may be even more contagious than the original Delta variant, and it shows an ability to outwit some of the body's immune response. Dr. Vineeta Bal is an immunologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune.

VINEETA BAL: The fear in everybody's mind is that now there is a further mutation and it might again take us towards another wave.

FRAYER: But it's too soon to know that, Bal says. India has ramped up sequencing of coronavirus samples. It can't this variant relatively early. Only about 40 cases have been detected in India so far. But it's also turned up in nine other countries, including the United States. So it's unclear where it originated.

SUNEELA GARG: From where did it come? But the fact is it is there.

FRAYER: Dr. Suneela Garg is a virologist and adviser to the Indian Council of Medical Research, which is like India's CDC. Garg says scientists are studying how effective vaccines will be against this variant, but only about 4% of Indians are fully vaccinated anyway. So Garg says...

GARG: We have to again go back to our basics, wearing our masks and testing, treating and tracking.

FRAYER: She says even as lockdowns are lifted across India, people cannot let their guard down. The Indian government has advised three states in particular where Delta plus has been detected to increase testing, contact tracing and vaccinations.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.