New Delhi:
Tthe Health Ministry on Wednesday said that a new "double mutant variant" of the coronavirus has been detected in 18 states in the country in addition to many other strains or variants of concern (VOCs) which have also found abroad.

Genome sequencing and analysis of samples from Maharashtra state found mutations in the virus that do not match previously cataloged "variants of concern" (VOC), the ministry said in a statement.

These have been categorized as VOCs but require the same epidemiological and public health response of “increased testing, comprehensive tracking of close contacts, prompt isolation of positive cases & contacts as well as treatment as per National Treatment Protocol” by the States/UTs," the ministry said.

It did not elaborate. India has already reported several cases of a variant first detected in Britain, as well as ones first found in South Africa and Brazil.

The samples were subjected to genome sequencing – a testing process to understand the complete genetics of an organism – by government consortium  of ten national laboratories.Genome tests were done on samples from arriving international travelers, contacts of those positive for the new strains and community samples from most of the states where the 10 national labs are there.

Maharashtra is one of India's worst-affected states but the ministry said it was not clear if the new variant was causing an upsurge there or in other states.

"Though VOCs and a new double mutant variant have been found in India, these have not been detected in numbers sufficient to either establish a direct relationship or explain the rapid increase in cases in some states," the ministry said in a statement.On Wednesday,

India reported 47,262 new infections over the previous 24-hour period, the highest since early November, taking its overall tally to 11.7 million. Only the United States and Brazil have higher caseloads. The number of deaths from COVID-19 in India in the previous 24 hours rose to 275, the most this year, taking the total to 160,441, government data showed.

Several states announced a ban on large gatherings ahead of the Hindu festival of Holi this weekend. The health ministry said states were "strongly advised" to restrict public observation of festivals.

"Any laxity at this point in ensuring strict adherence … to contain the spread of COVID-19, may result in losing the impetus and benefits that our country has gained so far in managing the virus," the ministry said in a statement. Alarmed by the surge, the federal government has announced it was expanding its nationwide inoculation campaign to include everyone above the age of 45 years and appealed to people to get vaccinated.

Total vaccinations in India, rank as the world's third-highest, behind the United States and China, but its ranking is lower on a per capita basis, the website Our World in Data showed.

The analysis of samples from Maharashtra has revealed that compared to December 2020, there has been an increase in the fraction of samples with the E484Q and L452R mutations. Such mutations confer immune escape and increased infectivity. These mutations have been found in about 15-20% of samples and do not match any previously catalogued VOCs.

From Kerala 2032 samples (from all 14 districts) have been sequenced.

The N440K variant that is associated with immune escape has been found in 123 samples from 11 districts.

This variant was earlier found in 33% of samples from Andhra Pradesh, and in 53 of 104 samples from Telangana. This variant has also been reported from 16 other countries including UK, Denmark, Singapore, Japan and Australia.

As of now these can be at best said to be variant under investigation.Out of 10,787, the British variant has been reported in 736 samples in India.

The South African strain of coronavirus has been detected in 34 people in the country and the Brazil variant has been seen in one sample, the government said.With COVID-19 cases on a worrying rise, the centre today urged states to ensure strict adherence to Covid protocols during upcoming festivals such as Holi, Shab-e-Barat, Bihu, Easter and Eid-ul-Fitr.