More transmissible, more dangerous
The Delta variant is on the rise. After triggering a dramatic outbreak in India, it's spread to the UK, where it's also leading to a rise in the number of cases -- and experts fear it may soon take over in other parts of the world.
In the UK, where over half of the adult population is now fully vaccinated, cases continue to be on the rise, in large part due to the Delta variant. The variant now accounts for 90% of UK cases, with studies suggesting that it is 60% more contagious transmissible than the Alpha variant, which itself was already more contagious than the first version of the virus. This is by far the most contagious coronavirus variant we've seen so far.
Speaking to the BBC on June 13, Andrew Hayward, an adviser to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London, said the variant also appears to be more dangerous.
“Sixty per cent more infectious is extremely worrying—that’s the main thing that will drive the speed with which the next wave comes along. And the fact that the level of hospitalisations from this infection appear to be maybe up to double those of the previous infection is of course also extremely concerning.”
It's not fully understood just how well the existing vaccines protect against this new variant. Both the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccines appear efficient at preventing hospitalizations (96% for Pfizer-BioNTech and 92% for Oxford-AstraZeneca). When it comes to preventing infection itself, the effectiveness of the two vaccines is reduced somewhat. According to figures gathered by Public Health Scotland and published in the Lancet, protection against infection fell from 92% (for the Alpha variant) to 79% (against the Delta variant) for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, while for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine the protection fell from 73% to 60% respectively. The figures were measured at least two weeks after the second dose of jabs, to allow for immunity build-up. Data regarding the other vaccines is less clear.
A race against time
Vaccination is our best line of defense against all existing variants. So we're now in a race against time, trying to vaccinate as many people as possible quickly to limit the spread of the disease -- as well as the possibility of a new dangerous variant emerging.
In the US, president Biden warned that the variant is ‘particularly dangerous’ for young people, but poses a substantial threat for everyone who hasn't had their full vaccination course yet.
“The data is clear: If you are unvaccinated, you’re at risk of getting seriously ill or dying or spreading it,” Biden said during a news conference from the White House, adding that the variant “will leave unvaccinated people even more vulnerable than they were a month ago.”
We're now at a turning point in the pandemic. With 21.8% of the globe receiving at least one vaccine dose, many parts of the world (especially developed countries, with higher vaccination rates) are starting to relax lockdown and other containment measures. As this happens, a small increase in cases can be expected. Variants such as the Delta variant can turbocharge these small increases and lead to something we all hope to avoid: another health crisis, with another set of containment measures. Vaccinations can help prevent that, provided that enough of the population is vaccinated.
The problem (in addition to the overall vaccination rates) is that while the averages may look okay, there is substantial inequality between different countries -- and even different communities within the same country. For instance, around 44 percent of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated. While this leaves the majority of people vulnerable, it can create the illusion that about half of the population is safe. But take a look at the extremes and you'll see that in Vermont, 64% of residents are fully vaccinated, while in Mississippi, only 28% can claim the same thing. Relaxing public health restrictions and declaring victory too quickly could provide an opportunity for the Delta variant to surge yet again, especially when temperatures start going down.
It's not clear yet if COVID-19 has a seasonal effect, but a study suggests so. A look at what's happening in South America (where winter just kicked off and vaccination rates are relatively low) paints a concerning picture. The virus is pummeling the continent, with countries like Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia suffering a massive toll.
It's also important to ensure that the less develope parts of the world also have access to vaccines. Currently, only 0.9% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose. Helping everyone get their vaccination share is more than just a humanitarian effort -- it helps to reduce the risk of new variants such as Delta emerging. Should a highly contagious and vaccine-resistant variant emerge, we would be in for a great deal of trouble.
The end of the pandemic is far from over, but it's now in sight. It's important to continue the concentrated efforts and see this through, and not rest on our laurels too early. We have a multitude of vaccines developed already -- we'd be wise to use them.