KEY POINTS

  • The WHO detected the Indian COVID-19 variant in sequences from 17 countries
  • The B1617 is currently labelled a 'variant of interest'
  • Pfizer/BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine is effective against the new variant

The World Health Organization on Tuesday revealed that a COVID-19 variant believed to be the culprit behind a devastating surge in coronavirus cases and deaths in India and which has been found in over a dozen countries. 

The health agency said, as of Tuesday, it detected the B1617 variant first detected in India in sequences from at least 17 countries, including the U.S. and U.K. 

"Most sequences were uploaded from India, the United Kingdom, USA and Singapore," the WHO said in its weekly update on the coronavirus pandemic. 

The U.N. agency recently listed B1617 as a “variant of interest,” but stopped short of calling it a cause of concern. The latter would indicate that it is more dangerous than the original strain of COVID-19 by being more transmissible or having the ability to dodge vaccines. 

On Wednesday, BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin expressed confidence that the COVID-19 vaccine his company developed in partnership with Pfizer is effective against the new strain. 

“We are still testing the Indian variant, but the Indian variant has mutations that we have already tested for and which our vaccine works against, so I am confident,” Sahin said. 

“The vaccine is cleverly built and I’m convinced the bulwark will hold. And if we have to strengthen the bulwark again, then we will do it, that I’m not worried about,” he added. 

The WHO’s announcement comes after the Indian government reported a record daily death toll of 3,293, bringing the total COVID-19 deaths in the country to 201,187. 

Health officials in India also recorded 360,960 new infections, marking the country's seventh consecutive day of exceeding 300,000 new cases. India is now reporting approximately 1 million new COVID-19 cases every three days, according to India's Ministry of Health. 

In April alone, India has reported over 5.8 million new cases. However, experts suggest the official numbers may be underreported by at least half a billion. 

The outbreak has pushed the country’s health care system to the brink. Hospitals across the nation are struggling to accommodate the surge of COVID-19 patients, leaving many dying while waiting in line for care. 

“Our hospitals are overwhelmed with our own population and we are running low on oxygen so we are not able to admit those coming in from surrounding areas," Dr. Hiral Shah, president of the Indian Medical Association, told CNN. "The supply [of oxygen] is uncertain, hospitals don't know what will happen today or tomorrow.”

India is facing a massive shortage of oxygen supplies India is facing a massive shortage of oxygen supplies Photo: AFP / Sajjad HUSSAIN