The Delta version is positioned to take full advantage of those flaws in any country’s armor.
“Comprehensive vaccination is even more important, because the virus we are transmitting is actually more transmissible than the original wild type,” said Dr. Rochelle Valensky, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Parts of Europe have reinstated travel quarantines amid concerns about the spread of the variant, many Australian cities are in outbreak-sparked lockdown – and as Japan readies for the Olympics, some visiting athletes are infected. Huh. The mutation is causing concern even in countries with relatively successful vaccination campaigns, yet the virus hasn’t reached enough people to smell it.
For example, mutants have forced Britain, where nearly half the population is fully vaccinated, to postpone the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions for a month, as cases are doubling every nine days. Huh.
In the US, “we are still vulnerable to these flare-ups and rebellions,” said Dr. Hilary Babcock of Washington University in St. Louis.
Variants are able to “find any gaps in our protection,” she said, referring to how hospital beds and intensive care units are suddenly filling up in Missouri’s least-vaccinated southwestern counties — mostly adults under 40. With those who never got a shot. With nearly half the US population vaccinated, CDC tracking shows the fastest-spreading variant in areas of the country with the lowest rates.
But the variant is most at risk in countries where vaccination is sparse. The WHO said on Thursday that Africa is seeing a rise in cases faster than ever before, partly driven by mutations, while areas bordering India in Bangladesh are also seeing a type-fuelled surge. Fiji, which only got through the first year of the pandemic without two virus deaths, is now facing a significant outbreak over tensions, and Afghanistan is desperately demanding oxygen supplies because of it.
The Delta variant is far from the only version of the spreading coronavirus — and you don’t want to catch any. Here’s what scientists know so far:
Easy diffusion is the main danger
Scientists believe the delta variant is about 50% more permeable than other types. Researchers are just beginning to tease why. But there are early clues that certain mutations could facilitate a critical step in how the virus slips inside human cells, said Priyamvada Acharya, a structural biologist at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.
Still, it’s not clear whether the high infections are the reason why the version is spreading so quickly. In Britain, its rise coincided with the easing of restrictions in May, when restaurants, gyms and other businesses reopened, and thousands of fans flocked to sporting events.
Is it more dangerous?
It’s hard to tell whether the delta version makes people sick. British experts have said there is some preliminary indication that it may increase the chances of hospitalization, but there is no evidence that it is more fatal.
It fueled a devastating COVID-19 surge in India in February, and “this time we had a lot more people who were a lot more sick than before,” said Dr. Jacob John said. But he cautioned that the “explosion” of cases didn’t mean the version was more dangerous, as more cases usually meant more hospitalizations.
The best protection is complete vaccination
British researchers found that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine or AstraZeneca were only slightly less effective at preventing symptomatic disease from the delta variant than the earlier mutation – and importantly, extremely protective at preventing hospitalization .
But there’s an important catch: Just one dose proved to be much less effective against the delta version than against the older versions of the virus. This has prompted Britain, which has basically increased the gap between doses, to speed up the second shot.
Little is known about whether the delta variant can survive other vaccines, such as those developed in China or Russia.
Experts say that like Pfizer, the modern vaccine should be equally protective. Johnson & Johnson is still studying how its one-dose vaccine fares against the variant. The company notes that its shot protects against a different anxiolytic mutant – the so-called beta version that emerged in South Africa and is still considered the biggest challenge for COVID-19 vaccines today.
What about masks?
The WHO urges governments not to lift pandemic restrictions too quickly – in which everyone, even the vaccinated, should continue to wear masks, given that the delta variant spreads more easily And no vaccine is 100% effective.
In the US, the CDC says the fully vaccinated can go mask-free. But there is no way to know whether masked people are actually vaccinated and local governments can set strict guidelines. This week, with the Delta version spreading locally, health officials in Los Angeles County said they still recommend masks for everyone indoors in public places.
If this is confusing, consider that the more the virus is spreading in a particular area, the greater the risk of even vaccinated people getting a mild or asymptomatic infection, if they are infected with any such virus. Can spread to person who is not protected – such as children too young to be eligible for shots.
In Missouri, the fully vaccinated Babcock makes sure she has a mask to pop on quickly when running into a crowd: “I feel like my new normal is holding a mask in my hand, if I have to. If it is needed, it is ready to be installed.”
Associated Press writers Maria Cheng in London and Anirudh Ghoshal in New Delhi contributed to this report.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.