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FLiRT – New Covid Variant, COVID-19 Status in India

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Context: New COVID-19 strains KP.2 and KP1.1, referred to as FLiRT variants, are leading to an increase in cases in the U.S., U.K., South Korea, and New Zealand. FLiRT, is causing a rise in cases globally and has reached India with 250 reported cases.

About FLiRT

  • FLiRT is a sub-variant of the Omicron lineage with new mutations.
  • Variant: The FLiRT group of variants, specifically KP.2 and KP1.1, are recent descendants of the JN.1 variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  • Origin and Lineage:
    • JN.1: A descendant of the Pirola variant (BA.2.86), which is a sub-variant of Omicron, and was previously classified as a Variant of Interest.
    • KP.2: Known as the ‘great-grandson’ of JN.1, it is more prevalent in several countries and currently accounts for about 25% of new cases in both the U.S. and the U.K.
  • Symptoms: Symptoms of the FLiRT variants are similar to those of other Omicron sub variants and include sore throat, cough, nausea, congestion, fatigue, headache, muscle or body ache, and loss of taste or smell.
  • Immunity Evasion: Research has shown that the FLiRT variants, particularly KP.2, are capable of evading immunity provided by vaccines and previous infections, which presents additional challenges in managing COVID-19.
  • Prevalence and Spread: The variants are causing a surge in COVID-19 cases in countries such as the U.S., U.K., South Korea, and New Zealand.

COVID-19 Status in India

  • Detection: The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG), a network of genomic laboratories, has detected cases of FLiRT variants in India.
  • Response: There is an observed increase in COVID-19 cases in India, highlighting the need for updated vaccinations and continued precautionary measures.

Preventive Measures

  • Stay updated with Covid-19 vaccines, including boosters.
  • Use well-fitting respirators like N95s or KN95s in indoor public settings, particularly in high transmission areas.
  • Increase airflow and filtration in indoor spaces.
  • Use rapid antigen tests if exposed to gatherings or individuals with Covid-19.
  • Isolate if tested positive and stay home to prevent spread.
  • Follow hand hygiene and social distancing guidelines.
  • Stay informed about local transmission levels and adhere to public health guidance.

Vulnerability of the Elderly

  • Senior citizens are more prone to severe illness due to age-related changes, decreased immune function, and comorbidities.
  • Adults aged 60 and older, particularly those with pre-existing conditions like heart disease, lung disease, diabetes, or cancer, face higher risks of severe and potentially fatal Covid-19 infections.
  • The most vulnerable groups include those 65 and older, pregnant women, and the immunocompromised.

Effectiveness of Earlier Vaccines

  • FLiRT may cause breakthrough infections and partial immune evasion.
  • Older vaccines still provide significant protection against severe illness, hospitalisation, and death.
  • Vaccines may not fully prevent infection but reduce viral loads, leading to milder symptoms and lower transmission rates.
Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG)

  • INSACOG was initiated jointly by the Union Ministry of Health, the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

Consortium Structure

  • It comprises 54 laboratories aimed at monitoring genomic variations of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
  • The effort is coordinated by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in Delhi, involving the Central Surveillance Unit (CSU) under the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP).

Purpose of Establishment

  • INSACOG was created to enhance the whole genome sequencing capabilities of SARS-CoV-2 in India.
  • This initiative helps in understanding the virus’s transmission and evolution, thereby improving the public health response to the pandemic.
  • It enables the detection of any genetic changes or mutations in the virus through the analysis and sequencing of samples in the participating laboratories.

Specific Objectives

  • To determine the status of Variants of Interest (VoI) and Variants of Concern (VoC) within India.
  • To establish sentinel surveillance and surge surveillance mechanisms for the early detection of genomic variants.
  • To aid in the development of effective public health strategies and responses based on these findings.
  • To analyse genomic variants from samples collected during super-spreader events and from regions reporting rising trends in cases or deaths.

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