Delta variant threatens a new pandemic challenge

Experts warn that immunization campaigns are in a race against time to contain the new strain of the pandemic that is taking over the world

A tram commutes on a street in Sydney on June 26, 2021, after authorities locked down several central areas of Australia's largest city to contain an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant. (SAEED KHAN / AFP)
A tram commutes on a street in Sydney on June 26, 2021, after authorities locked down several central areas of Australia's largest city to contain an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant. (SAEED KHAN / AFP)

PARIS (AFP) — The highly-contagious Delta variant is causing a surge in new COVID-19 cases even in countries with high vaccination rates — and experts warn that immunization campaigns are in a race against time to contain it.

Globally, the pandemic is still slowing down, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting the lowest number of new cases worldwide since February and decreasing deaths attributed to the coronavirus.

But concerns are growing about the variant, prompting new restrictions in countries that had previously managed to control their epidemics.

“Globally there is currently a lot of concern about the Delta variant — and WHO is concerned about it too,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a press conference on Friday.

“Delta is the most transmissible of the variants identified so far, has been identified in at least 85 countries and is spreading rapidly among unvaccinated populations.

“As some countries ease public health and social measures, we are starting to see increases in transmission around the world.”

French Prime Minister Jean Castex (L) and French Health Minister Olivier Veran (R) visit a vaccination center in Mont-de-Marsan, southwestern France, on June 24, 2021 (GAIZKA IROZ / AFP)

Cases are on the rise in Russia, Australia, Israel and across parts of Africa, in part due to Delta.

Other countries fear they could be next.

More contagious

The Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 was first detected in India where it began circulating around April.

In Europe, Delta initially gained a foothold in Britain, where it quickly outpaced the previous variant of concern Alpha, and now comprises 95 percent of all sequenced cases in England.

Delta is thought to be some 40% to 60% more contagious than Alpha, which itself is more contagious than the strain responsible for the first wave of COVID-19.

The pattern has been repeated elsewhere.

People queue outside a vaccination centre in Sydney on June 24, 2021, as residents were largely banned from leaving the city to stop a growing outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant of coronavirus spreading to other regions. (SAEED KHAN / AFP)

In the United States last week, 35% of positive tests that were sequenced were identified as the Delta variant, up from about 10% on June 5.

The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) has estimated Delta could account for 70% of new infections in the EU by the beginning of August and 90% by the end of that month.

Top US infectious disease scientist Anthony Fauci called the variant the “greatest threat” to efforts to control the virus and urged an acceleration in vaccinations, American media reported on Tuesday.

While several studies have shown that vaccines are slightly less effective against Delta, they are still highly effective — but only after the second dose.

A woman wearing a face mask walks towards a light rail station in Sydney on June 23, 2021 (Saeed KHAN / AFP)

Recent data from the British government shows that full immunization can offer about 96% protection against hospitalization and 79% protection against symptomatic infection by the Delta variant.

Protection after only one dose, however, is much weaker — 35%.

‘World is failing’

Delta is so contagious that experts say more than 80% of a population would need to be given shots in order to contain it — a challenging target even for nations with significant vaccination programs.

In Africa, the WHO estimates that only 1% of the population is fully vaccinated — the lowest ratio globally.

People march to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) offices in Pretoria, on June 25, 2021. Hundreds of protesters rallied in South Africa’s capital Pretoria calling for the country’s medicines regulatory body to give the greenlight to China’s Sinovac and Russia’s Sputnik vaccines, amid a third coronavirus wave. (Phill Magakoe / AFP)

Tedros said there was a “worrying trend in Africa, It’s becoming so dangerous.”

The Delta variant has been reported in 14 African countries, accounting for most new cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

Vaccine doses flowing through the Covax scheme to poorer countries have all but dried up, the WHO said Friday.

“The world is failing” with lack of access to shots causing a two-track pandemic, said Tedros, pleading: “Just give us the vaccines.”

A further complication is that Delta largely seems to bypass immunity that might be conferred by a previous infection, said Samuel Alizon, a biologist specialized in infectious disease modelling.

“We can’t really rely on natural immunity anymore,” he told AFP.

Members of the public receive a dose of a COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine inside a temporary vaccination center set up a the Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal football club, in north London on June 25, 2021 (DANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP)

With large numbers of younger people remaining unvaccinated, tough measures may have to be reintroduced to stop the spread, even in nations where large-scale vaccine roll-outs had held out the promise of reopening.

In Europe, the ECDC warned that any further relaxation of containment measures would risk a surge in new cases across age groups.

Some countries, such as Israel and Australia, have already announced a return to certain restrictions. Israel on Friday reintroduced an indoor mask mandate outside one’s own residence.

Awoman gets her second COVID-19 vaccination dose at a vaccination clinic in South Los Angeles on June 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, California (MARIO TAMA / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

“Our goal is to end it,” said Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, “to take a bucket of water and pour it on the fire when the fire is still small.”

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