The latest alarming variant of the coronavirus is taking advantage of low global vaccination rates and a rush to loosen the pandemic restrictions, adding new urgency to the campaign to get more shots in the arms and slow its supercharged spread.
The vaccines most used in Western countries still offer strong protection against the highly contagious delta variant, first identified in India and now spreading to more than 90 other countries.
But the World Health Organization warned this week that the triad of easier-to-spread strains, inadequate immunization of the population, reduced use of masks and other public health measures before the virus is better contained “will delay the end of the epidemic”.
The delta variant was put in place to take full advantage of those vulnerabilities in a country’s armor.
“Massive vaccination is still more important, because the virus we transmit is actually more transmissible than the original wild type,” said Dr. Rochelle Walinsky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Amid concerns about the spread of the variant, parts of Europe have reinstated travel quarantine, many Australian cities are on lockdown due to the outbreak – and just as Japan prepares for the Olympics, some visiting athletes have become infected. The surge is causing concern even in countries with relatively successful immunization campaigns yet not reaching enough people to eliminate the virus.
For example, the surge has forced Britain, where nearly half the population has been fully vaccinated, to delay its long-awaited lifting of COVID-19 restrictions by a month, as cases double roughly every nine days.
“In the United States, we’re still vulnerable to these blasts and bounces,” said Dr. Hilary Babcock of Washington University in St. Louis.
The variants “are able to find any gaps in our protection,” she said, noting how hospital beds and intensive care units in Missouri’s less-vaccinated southwestern counties are suddenly filling up — mostly with adults under 40 who have never gotten vaccinated. With nearly half of the US population immunized, CDC tracking shows that the variant is spreading more quickly in parts of the country with lower rates.
But the alternative presents the greatest risk in countries where vaccines are sporadic. The World Health Organization said Thursday that Africa is seeing cases rise faster than ever, driven in part by the boom, while parts of Bangladesh are seeing the border with India. Also seeing an increase supported by variable fuels. Fiji, which passed the first year of the epidemic without only two people dying from the virus, It is now experiencing a major outbreak Blame the tension, Afghanistan desperately seeking oxygen supply Because of that.
The delta variant is still far from the only version of the coronavirus circulating – and you don’t want to get infected of any kind. Here’s what scientists know so far:
The easiest distribution is the main threat
Scientists believe that the delta variant is 50% more transmissible than other species. Researchers are just beginning to disentangle the cause. Priyamvada Acharya, a structural biologist at the Duke Institute for Human Vaccines, said there is early evidence that some mutations may facilitate a key step in how the virus slips into human cells.
However, it is not clear whether high infection is the whole cause of the variant spreading so quickly. In Britain, its rise came after restrictions were eased in May, when restaurants, gyms and other businesses reopened, and thousands of fans attended sporting events.
Is it more dangerous?
It’s hard to know if the delta variant makes people sicker. British experts said there was some preliminary evidence that it could increase hospitalization, but no evidence that it is more deadly.
This led to a devastating increase of COVID-19 in India in February, and “this time we had a lot more people who were very sick than before,” said Dr Jacob John of Vellore Christian Medical College. But he cautioned that an “explosion” of cases did not necessarily mean that this version was more serious, as more cases usually meant more hospitalization.
The best protection is a full vaccination
British researchers found that two doses of either the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or the AstraZeneca vaccine were slightly less effective at preventing symptoms of delta-variable disease than previous mutations — and most importantly, they remain significantly protective in preventing hospitalization.
But there is an important problem: Only a single dose has proven to be less effective against the delta variant than previous versions of the virus. This prompted Britain, which had originally widened the gap between doses, to speed up the second doses.
There is little information about whether the delta variant could escape other vaccines, such as those developed in China or Russia.
Experts say the Moderna vaccine, which is the same type as the Pfizer vaccine, should be similarly preventative. Johnson & Johnson is still studying how a single-dose vaccine will perform against the alternative. The company notes that its shot protects against various worrisome mutations – a so-called beta variant that emerged in South Africa and is still considered the biggest challenge for COVID-19 vaccines today.
What about the masks?
The World Health Organization has urged governments not to lift pandemic restrictions too quickly – including saying that everyone, even those vaccinated, should continue to wear masks given that the delta variant spreads more easily and no vaccine is 100% effective.
In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says a full vaccination can go mask-free. But there is no way to know if people without masks have really been vaccinated and local governments can set stricter guidelines. This week, as the delta variant spread locally, Los Angeles County health officials said they are still recommending face masks in public spaces for everyone.
If that’s confusing, consider that the more the virus spreads in a particular area, the higher the risk of the vaccine being exposed to even mild or asymptomatic infections that they could pass to an unprotected person—such as children too young to qualify for the injection.
In Missouri, fully vetted Babcock makes sure she has a mask to put on quickly if she encounters a crowd: “I feel like my new normal has a mask in my hand, ready to put on if I need it.”
Associated Press writers Maria Cheng in London and Aniruda Gosal in New Delhi contributed to this report.
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