Hyderabad: Around 50 domestic flights operating out of Hyderabad's Rajiv Gandhi International Airport were cancelled on 8 May. This marks the third consecutive day of last-minute ticket cancellations while the civil aviation sector stares at another crisis.
According to officials, a majority of flights cancelled were scheduled to arrive from or depart to Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru, Chennai, and Goa. Surge of COVID cases in Telangana, lockdown imposed by Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and Delhi's mandatory quarantine and uncertainty have resulted in the cancellation, officials said. Also, the misreporting on the N440K strain saying it was 15 times more infectious has led to nationwide panic.
According to statistics, on 6 May over 33 flights were cancelled and on 7 May it was 30 flights while 8 May saw the highest number of cancellations with 50 flights being cancelled at the airport. In a span of three days, operations of 113 flights have been hit.
On average, close to 350 domestic flights operate in and out of Hyderabad airport daily. However, ever since the number of infections touched new peaks in Telangana, the number of flight cancellations has increased. This has severely impacted the aviation sector.
Rakesh Dannarapu, an aviation expert and author of "101 Flying Secrets" explained, "These flight cancellations may seem new to India but in the recent past we have seen many countries cancel both domestic and international flights when facing adverse waves/surges/strains. Therefore, this was bound to happen at some point. A popular English Daily that misreported about a COVID variant has added to the confusion and chaos."
He further added, "At this rate of restrictions and bans coming into effect, even international bodies such as International Air Transport Association are unable to cope at times. We are in a situation where airlines are selling tickets but there is no assurance if the passenger can travel."
According to the author, the Indian aviation market saw a healthy and robust passenger turnaround after the peak of the first wave. "The airlines may expect the same once there is a degree of certainty when the COVID curve turns flat. I see them holding back for a while. They may retain their employees with minimum or no salary being offered until the air travel picks up again," Mr. Dannarapu said.
Meanwhile, experts are advising big players in the civil aviation sector to vaccinate its crew and employees. An all-vaccinated flying crew would help them sell propositions for the airline.
Fake news about N440K variant creating confusion
Earlier this week, a few news organizations had reported that the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, had discovered that a new variant of the coronavirus, N440K, was responsible for the surge in cases in Vizag and other parts of Andhra Pradesh. The reports had further claimed that the new strain which was being called the AP strain was at least 15 times more virulent than the earlier ones.
On 6 May, the Andhra Pradesh government issued a clarification saying there was no data to suggest that N440K is a variant of interest and is very virulent. It had said that N440K strain of coronavirus (B.1.36) was detected in June-July last year from samples collected from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Telangana.
"This strain was prevalent in December 2020 and January and February 2021 and dropped down drastically in March and now the share of N440K among the positives is very minimal," it had said.
Two major strains of the virus - B.1.617 and B.1 - were identified from the samples taken from the three states, according to April data. They are highly infectious and are also spreading among the younger age groups, the clarification noted.
It further clarified that the COVID-19 Weekly Epidemiological Update of 25 April issued by WHO mentioned B.1.617 as a variant of interest from India but did not mention N440K. "If this variant is of such public health concern as reported in certain sections of media, it should have by now found WHO reports as well as ICMR reports," it added.
The notice further said that just because the N440K variant is shown to be efficient in the cell culture system in experimental conditions, it does not mean it will behave the same way in humans or in a complicated pandemic scenario.
What is a double mutant?
B.1.617 (double mutant) was first sampled in early October 2020 in Maharashtra. This lineage is characterized by about 15 mutations all over its genome. 6 out of the 15 mutations are present in its Spike protein, out of which two mutations, in particular, were of interest: L452R and E484Q. These were of interest because L452R was seen in a variant circulating in California, and was shown to increase the infectivity of the virus, and E484Q was shown in vitro experiments to be an immune escape mutation (possesses the ability to bypass host immunity, either acquired by previous SARS-CoV-2 infection or conferred by vaccination). Because these two mutations were repeatedly mentioned when talking about this lineage, the colloquial name of double mutant came about.
What's the "triple mutant"?
The strain which various news articles and others are referring to as "triple mutant" is a sub-lineage of B.1.617, with an extra mutation in its Spike protein: V382L. The mutation V382L has previously been reported in the US as a low-frequency mutation with possible immune escape properties as seen in vitro assays. There is no conclusive evidence at this point that associates any of these lineages with a more severe or lethal outcome of COVID19.
Since their footprints are increasing, it is reasonable to think that these are more efficient in spreading. We have seen that B.1.617 is not resistant to a vaccine or prior infection mediates the immune response.
Which mutant has hit India in second wave?
Unlike northern India where the UK variant is responsible for a high percentage of COVID cases during the COVID Second wave, South India has a different story. The B.1.617 variant known as the 'double mutant' is prominent in Maharashtra and now making headway in Karnataka.
However, what is of concern currently is that the variants spreading in larger parts of the country. The Triple mutant is currently limited to Maharashtra and scientists need more data to conduct genome sequencing to understand the nature of the mutant.
The N440K variant has found be to more dominant in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Kerala. Is the RTPCR test unable to detect the new variants resulting in false-negative reports?
It is pertinent to note that thousands of cases reported in the recent are results from the RTPCR test. None of the variants can evade its presence, although it is important to know that sensitivity of RT-PCR tests is 70-80%. In certain cases based on the viral load, it may not be detected however it is in the majority of the cases it has. False-negative is expected in few tests among hundreds.
States and Union Territories under lockdown
1. Karnataka Chief Minister B.S Yediyurappa announced lockdown-like restrictions with more stringent curbs from 10 to 24 May to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
2. Tamil Nadu imposed a total lockdown from 10 May amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
3. Kerala went under lockdown from 8 May. Only essential services are permitted in the state. The lockdown will be in place till 16 May.
4. On 3 May, Andhra Pradesh announced it will impose a partial curfew in the state for 14 days from 5 May. All shops will be open from 6 a.m to 12 p.m with Section 144 in force and only emergency services will be allowed from there on.
5. Telangana has imposed a night curfew from 9 p.m to 5 a.m till 15 May.
6. The Delhi government has made two-week quarantine mandatory for people coming from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana after a new variant of COVID virus was detected in the two states.
7. Maharastra has imposed a complete lockdown till 15 May.