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Is Delta the last Covid ‘super variant’? | Coronavirus

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Every week, a group of epidemiologists across the north-east of the United States joins a Zoom call entirely devoted to discussing the latest hints of new Covid-19 variants being reported around the world.

“It’s like the weather report,” says William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “It used to be, ‘We have a little bit of Gamma there, we’ve got Alpha coming up here.’ But now it’s just Delta.”

Since it was first detected in India in December 2020, the Delta variant of Sars-CoV-2 has become so ubiquitous that it would be easy to assume that the once-rapid evolution of the virus has been replaced by a state of quiescence. According to the World Health Organization, 99.5% of all Covid-19 genomic sequences reported to public databases are now Delta.

While new strains have continued to emerge, such as the recent AY. 4.2 or the Delta Plus variant in the UK, which scientists estimate to be 10-15% more transmissible, although there is no exact data for this yet, they are almost identical to the Delta variant, apart from the odd minor mutation here and there. Hanage has taken to referring to them as Delta’s grandchildren.

“There’s been quite a few Delta Pluses,” he says. “I did a recent radio interview where I said that Delta Plus is code for whatever people are getting their knickers in a twist about at the moment. It’s not gigantically more transmissible.”

But the reason Hanage and colleagues still scan databases such as Pangolin and Nextstrain each week, and the purpose of their regular Zoom calls, is to try and predict what might come next. Is Delta really Covid-19’s endgame or is something more ominous looming in the future? It is a question to which no one is entirely sure of the answer.

One possibility is that after the initial dramatic jumps in its genetic sequence, which gave rise to first Alpha, then Delta, Sars-CoV-2 will now mutate slowly and steadily, eventually moving beyond reach of the current vaccines, but only over the course of many years. While scientists are at pains to point out that their predictions are mostly informed speculation, some perceive this as the most likely outcome.

“I anticipate that the kind of evolution we will see is more what we call antigenic drift, where the virus gradually evolves to escape the immune system,” says Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute. “For influenza and other coronaviruses we know quite well, it takes about 10 years for the virus to accumulate enough changes not to be recognised by antibodies in the blood.”

Mask-wearing pedestrians in London
High levels of the virus increase the chance of dangerous variants occurring. ‘If you look at the variants we’ve had, they have all emerged in countries with very high, uncontrolled transmission,’ says William Hanage of Harvard University. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

But the alternative is the sudden appearance of a completely new strain, with game-changing transmissibility, virulence or immune-evasive properties. Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, refers to these strains as “super variants” and says he is 80% sure that another one will emerge. The question is when.

“We’ve got a Delta pandemic at the moment,” says Gupta. “This new Delta Plus variant is relatively wimpy compared to the kind of thing I’m talking about. It has two mutations from the Delta strain, I don’t think they are that worrisome and it hasn’t taken off in a big way in other countries. But it’s inevitable that there will be another significant variant in the next two years and it will compete with Delta and it may out-compete Delta.”

There are a number of ways in which this might arise.

Will we see a super variant?

During the latter half of 2020, epidemiologists began to observe signs of a concerning phenomenon known as viral recombination, in which different versions of Sars-CoV-2 exchanged mutations and combined to form a totally new strain.

Thankfully, Gupta says recombination does not appear to be that common, but it remains one feasible source of a new super variant, particularly in parts of the world where sizable proportions of the population remain unvaccinated and viral strains can circulate freely. “Now that Delta is overwhelmingly the key virus, this has become less likely,” he says. “But there are large swaths of the planet that we’re not sampling and we don’t know what’s going on. So it is a very real possibility.”

The second is a series of major mutations, either resulting in a greatly enhanced version of Delta or something very different. It is thought there remains significant scope for this to happen. “While recent variants are versions of Delta, the virus has huge potential to evolve in the future,” says Gideon Schreiber, professor of biomolecular sciences at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. “More complex mutations can evolve, with simultaneous mutations at more than one position, which may be more problematic.”

In recent weeks, concerns have emerged that the use of new antiviral pills, in particular Merck’s molnupiravir, could contribute to this by actively encouraging Sars-CoV-2 to evolve. Molnupiravir works by interfering with the virus’s ability to replicate, littering its genome with mutations until it can no longer reproduce. Some virologists have argued that if any of these viral mutants survive and spread to others, it could theoretically spur the rise of new variants. Others acknowledge that while this is worth monitoring, it is not enough of a concern to deny severely ill patients a potentially lifesaving drug.

Gupta says that a greater problem, and one more likely to lead to a super variant, is the persistently high infection rate in countries such as the UK, due to the ability of Delta to transmit between vaccinated individuals. “The more infections there are per day, the more chance that there is someone out there, a patient X, who gets infected and their T-cells are not strong enough to clear the infection because they’re immune-suppressed,” he says. “So they end up having the infection over a number of days; they’ve got some antibodies knocking around because they’ve had a partial vaccine response and the virus learns to evade them and then that spills out.”

Earlier this year, Gupta published a paper that showed that this process could occur in severely ill patients who had been administered convalescent plasma laden with virus-killing antibodies. Because their immune system still couldn’t clear the virus, it learned to mutate around those antibodies. It has been speculated that the widespread use of convalescent plasma early in the pandemic was responsible for driving the emergence of variants.

“We don’t know for sure, but a lot of plasma was used and it was potentially one of the drivers for the variants,” he says. “It was used very widely in Brazil, India, the UK and the US, all of whom developed their own sets of variants.”

The vaccine-variant arms race

Epidemiologists are now trying to model what a new super variant might look like. So far, the major transformations in the virus have helped to increase its transmissibility. Hanage explains that one of the reasons why the Delta variant had such an impact is because it grows extremely rapidly within human cells, before the immune system kicks into gear. As a result, people infected with Delta carry approximately 1,200 times more viral particles in their noses compared with the original Sars-CoV-2 strain and develop symptoms two to three days sooner.

This is a result of natural selection. Different copies of the virus are being created all the time, but the ones that have survived and become more dominant are ones that are more capable of infecting new people. However, in countries such the UK, where the unvaccinated proportion of the population is diminishing, this could start to change. Strains that can sidestep antibodies are likely to become more dominant, making the next super variant far more likely to be able to evade at least some parts of the immune response.

Merck’s antiviral drug Molnupiravir
Concerns have been raised that because of the way Merck’s antiviral drug Molnupiravir works, new mutations will be created. However, most scientists don’t expect these to be harmful. Photograph: Merck & Co Inc/Reuters

“The strains of the virus that end up surviving and becoming dominant vary, depending on which stage of the pandemic you’re in,” says Hanage. “So far, it’s been much more important for the virus to be transmitting effectively into the remaining pool of unprotected people. But that is expected to change around about now.”

While this might sound a little terrifying, it’s not all bad news. Because the Covid-19 vaccines are designed with viral evolution in mind, epidemiologists do not expect any new super variant to render them completely useless and so it would be extremely unlikely to lead to large serious outbreaks, such as those of the past two years.

In addition, there is a second generation of Covid-19 vaccines that have been developed. Vaccine developer Novavax is hoping to obtain regulatory approval for its jabs in the next couple of months, while many more vaccines are expected to come on the market between now and 2023. These platforms are all taking their own steps to combat potential future variants.

According to Karin Jooss, executive vice-president and head of R&D at US pharmaceutical company Gritstone, which has a second-generation Covid-19 vaccine in phase I clinical trials, companies are sequencing all existing strains of Sars-CoV-2 and aiming to generate neutralising antibody responses against areas of the virus that are conserved between all those strains.

But epidemiologists also believe that relying on vaccines alone is not enough. Gupta says that even as we attempt to find a way to live with Covid-19 in the UK, there should still be some restrictions in place to limit the spread of the virus and reduce the number of opportunities it gets to mutate.

“The case numbers are so high at the moment that it’s much better to prevent new infections,” says Gupta. “In other words, we shouldn’t be wandering around in crowded places, in buildings without masks on, even though it’s hard to do. If you look at the variants we’ve had, they have all emerged in countries with very high, uncontrolled transmission – India, the UK, Brazil. There’s a reason why we haven’t heard of a Singaporean or South Korean variant.”

It is a philosophy many of his colleagues agree with. “You want to limit the number of opportunities that the virus gets to roll the dice,” says Hanage. “With natural selection, you’re basically talking about the most creative force that we know of when it comes to solving problems. It’s amazing. And so this is why you’d never bet against it. We expect the virus to keep evolving.”

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Woman passenger from UK tests Covid positive at Hyderabad airport

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Hyderabad: A 35-year-old international passenger who reached the Rajiv Gandhi International Airport here on Wednesday has tested positive for Covid-19 after undergoing an RT-PCR test at the airport itself. The woman passenger had traveled from the United Kingdom, which has been categorised as an ‘At Risk Country’. 

The passenger has been admitted to the Telangana Institute of Medical Sciences (TIMS) and samples were collected and sent for genetic sequencing. Officials said she did not have any symptoms and that her health condition was being monitored closely. 

According to officials, the woman hails from Rangareddy district and was on a visit to UK from Hyderabad. Though her close relatives tested negative, their health condition is also being monitored. 


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Revealed: how Sidney Powell could be disbarred for lying in court for Trump | US elections 2020

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Sidney Powell, the former lawyer for Donald Trump who filed lawsuits across America for the former president, hoping to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, has on several occasions represented to federal courts that people were co-counsel or plaintiffs in her cases without seeking their permission to do so, the Guardian has learned.

Some of these individuals say that they only found out that Powell had named them once the cases were already filed.

During this same period of time, Powell also named several other lawyers – with their permission in those instances – as co-counsel in her election-related cases, despite the fact that they played virtually no role whatsoever in bringing or litigating those cases.

Both Powell’s naming of other people as plaintiffs or co-counsel without their consent and representing that other attorneys were central to her cases when, in fact, their roles were nominal or nonexistent, constitute serious potential violations of the American Bar Association model rules for professional conduct, top legal ethicists told the Guardian.

Powell’s misrepresentations to the courts in those particular instances often aided fundraising for her nonprofit, Defending the Republic. Powell had told prospective donors that the attorneys were integral members of an “elite strike force” who had played outsized roles in her cases – when in fact they were barely involved if at all.

A couple poses for a photo in front of a Trump campaign bus at a rally in Alpharetta, Georgia, on 2 December 2020.
A couple poses for a photo in front of a Trump campaign bus at a rally in Alpharetta, Georgia, on 2 December 2020. Photograph: Nathan Posner/REX/Shutterstock

Powell did not respond to multiple requests for comment via phone, email, and over social media.

The State Bar of Texas is already investigating Powell for making other allegedly false and misleading statements to federal courts by propagating increasingly implausible conspiracy theories to federal courts that Joe Biden’s election as president of the United States was illegitimate.

The Texas bar held its first closed-door hearing regarding the allegations about Powell on 4 November. Investigations by state bar associations are ordinarily conducted behind closed doors and thus largely opaque to the public.

A federal grand jury has also been separately investigating Powell, Defending the Republic, as well as a political action committee that goes by the same name, for fundraising fraud, according to records reviewed by the Guardian.

Among those who have alleged that Powell falsely named them as co-counsel is attorney Linn Wood, who brought and litigated with Powell many of her lawsuits attempting to overturn the results of the election with her, including in the hotly contested state of Michigan.

The Michigan case was a futile attempt by Powell to erase Joe Biden’s victory in that state and name Trump as the winner. On 25 August, federal district court Judge Linda Parker, of Michigan, sanctioned Powell and nine other attorneys who worked with her for having engaged in “a historic and profound abuse of the judicial process” in bringing the case in the first place. Powell’s claims of election fraud, Parker asserted, had no basis in law and were solely based on “speculation, conjecture, and unwarranted suspicion”.

Parker further concluded that the conduct of Powell, Wood, and the eight other attorneys who they worked with, warranted a “referral for investigation and possible suspension or disbarment to the appropriate disciplinary authority for each state … in which each attorney is admitted”.

Wood told the court in the Michigan case that Powell had wrongly named him as one of her co-counsel in the Michigan case. During a hearing in the case to determine whether to sanction Wood, his defense largely rested on his claim that he had not been involved in the case at all. Powell, Wood told the court, had put his name on the lawsuit without her even telling him.

A man holds a sign reading "The dead cannot vote" at a rally in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Trump supporters attend a rally in Alpharetta, Georgia, where Sidney Powell spoke on efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Photograph: Nathan Posner/REX/Shutterstock

Wood said: “I do not specifically recall being asked about the Michigan complaint … In this case obviously my name was included. My experience or my skills apparently were never needed, so I didn’t have any involvement with it.”

Wood’s attorney, Paul Stablein, was also categorical in asserting that his client had nothing to do with the case, telling the Guardian in an interview: “He didn’t draft the complaint. He didn’t sign it. He did not authorize anyone to put his name on it.”

Powell has denied she would have ever named Wood as a co-counsel without Wood’s permission.

But other people have since come forward to say that Powell has said that they were named as plaintiffs or lawyers in her election-related cases without their permission.

In a Wisconsin voting case, a former Republican candidate for Congress, Derrick Van Orden, said he only learned after the fact that he had been named as a plaintiff in one of Powell’s cases.

“I learned through social media today that my name was included in a lawsuit without my permission,” Van Orden said in a statement he posted on Twitter, “To be clear, I am not involved in the lawsuit seeking to overturn the election in Wisconsin.”

Jason Shepherd, the Republican chairman of Georgia’s Cobb county, was similarly listed as a plaintiff in a Georgia election case without his approval.

In a 26 November 2020 statement, Shepherd said he had been talking to an associate of Powell’s prior to the case’s filing about the “Cobb GOP being a plaintiff” but said he first “needed more information to at least make sure the executive officers were in agreeing to us being a party in the suit”. The Cobb County Republican party later agreed to remain plaintiffs in the case instead of withdrawing.

Leslie Levin, a professor at the University of Connecticut Law School, said in an interview: “Misrepresentations to the court are very serious because lawyers are officers of the court. Bringing a lawsuit in someone’s name when they haven’t consented to being a party is a very serious misrepresentation and one for which a lawyer should expect to face serious discipline.”

Nora Freeman Engstrom, a law professor at Stanford University, says that Powell’s actions appear to violate Rule 3.3 of the ABA’s model rules of professional misconduct which hold that “a lawyer shall not knowingly … make a false statement of fact of law to a tribunal”.

Since election day last year, federal and state courts have dismissed more than 60 lawsuits alleging electoral fraud and irregularities by Powell, and other Trump allies.

Shortly after the election, Trump named Powell as a senior member of an “elite strike force” who would prove that Joe Biden only won the 2020 presidential race because the election was stolen from him. But Trump refused to pay her for her services. To remedy this, Powell set up a new nonprofit called Defending the Republic; its stated purpose is to “protect the integrity of elections in the United States”.

As a nonprofit, the group is allowed to raise unlimited amounts of “dark money” and donors are legally protected from the ordinary requirements to disclose their identities to the public. Powell warned supporters that for her to succeed, “millions of dollars must be raised”.

Echoing Trump’s rhetoric, Powell told prospective donors that Defending the Republic had a vast team of experienced litigators.

Sidney Powell speaks at a press conference on election results in Alpharetta, Georgia.
Sidney Powell speaks at a press conference on election results in Alpharetta, Georgia. Photograph: Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters

Among the attorneys who Powell said made up this “taskforce” were Emily Newman, who had served Trump as the White House liaison to the Department of Health and Human Services and as a senior official with the Department of Homeland Security. Newman had been a founding board member of Defending the Republic.

But facing sanctions in the Michigan case, some of the attorneys attempted to distance themselves from having played much of a meaningful role in her litigation.

Newman’s attorney told Parker, the judge, that Newman had “not played a role in the drafting of the complaint … My client was a contract lawyer working from home who spent maybe five hours on this matter. She really wasn’t involved … Her role was de minimis.”

To have standing to file her Michigan case, Powell was initially unable to find a local attorney to be co-counsel on her case but eventually attorney Gregory Rohl agreed to help out.

But when Rohl was sanctioned by Parker and referred to the Michigan attorney disciplinary board for further investigation, his defense was that he, too, was barely involved in the case. He claimed that he only received a copy of “the already prepared” 830-page initial complaint at the last minute, reviewed it for “well over an hour”, while then “making no additions, decisions or corrections” to the original.

As with Newman, Parker, found that Rohl violated ethics rules by making little, if any, effort to verify the facts of the claims in Powell’s filings.

In sanctioning Rohl, the judge wrote that “the court finds it exceedingly difficult to believe that Rohl read an 830-page complaint in just ‘well over an hour’ on the day he filed it. So, Rohl’s argument in and of itself reveals sanctionable conduct.”

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Govt to introduce important Bill, Covid situation likely to be discussed

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The government on Thursday will table ‘The National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (Amendment) Bill 2021’ in the Lok Sabha. A discussion on Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic and its various related aspects is also likely to take place in the lower House.


Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya will move the ‘The National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (Amendment) Bill’ in the Lok Sabha to amend the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research Act, 1998.





Under rule 193, a discussion on Covid-19 pandemic and various aspects related to it will likely take place. According to sources, the members may also raise their concern and ask for the government’s preparedness for the new Omicron variant. Under Rule 193, members can seek details about the new Covid variant. “Short duration discussion is likely to be held in the Lok Sabha on the Covid and its various aspects, including new Omicron variant,” sources said.


Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Prahlad Singh Patel, General V.K. Singh, Krishan Pal, Bhanu Pratap Verma, Rameshwar Teli and Kaushal Kishore will lay papers on the table. Reports and action reports of different standing committees will also be laid in the day.


The Lok Sabha on Wednesday passed the Assisted Reproductive Technology (Amendment) Bill 2021 (ART) by voice vote as the amendments moved by the DMK MP N.K. Prem Chandran, Trinamool Congress MP Saugata Roy and Shiv Sena MP Vinayak Raut were negated. The ART Bill seeks to regulate fertility clinics. All such clinics will have to be registered under the National Registry of Banks and Clinics of India.


The opposition is likely to continue to raise its voices on price rise, unemployment and extended jurisdiction of the Border Security Force (BSF) in some states. The opposition parties are also demanding a law guaranteeing the minimum support price (MSP).

(Only the headline and picture of this report may have been reworked by the Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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