Just as we feel a sense of normalcy seeping back into our consciousness and daily lives, mother nature, as she is apt to do, throws us a proverbial changeup. In this case, it’s a variation of Delta mutation of SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the constellation of symptoms associated with COVID-19. Known technically as B.1.617.2, the Delta variant is beginning to wreak havoc across the globe.
Perry Wilson, MD, a Yale Medicine epidemiologist, warns that “A major concern right now is Delta, a highly contagious (and possibly more severe) SARS-CoV-2 virus strain, which was first identified in India in December. It then swept rapidly through that country and Great Britain as well. The first Delta case in the United States was diagnosed a couple of months ago (in March) and it is now the dominant strain in the U.S. Because of the math, it grows exponentially and more quickly. So, what seems like a fairly modest rate of infectivity can cause a virus to dominate very quickly—like we’re seeing now. Delta is outcompeting everything else and becoming the dominant strain.”
In addition to the aggressive communicable nature of the Delta variant, it poses new threats to previously less-affected demographics.
According to Dr. Inci Yildirim, MD, PhD, a Yale Medicine pediatric infectious diseases specialist and a vaccinologist, “A recent study from the United Kingdom showed that children and adults under 50 were 2.5 times more likely to become infected with Delta. And so far, no vaccine has been approved for children 5 to 12 in the U.S., although the U.S. and a number of other countries have either authorized vaccines for adolescents and young children or are considering them. As older age groups get vaccinated, those who are younger and unvaccinated will be at higher risk of getting COVID-19 with any variant. But Delta seems to be impacting younger age groups more than previous variants.”
This characteristic of rapid transmission is troubling for health experts. Eric Topol, a professor of molecular medicine and an executive vice president at the Scripps Research Institution, offered the following insight: “It is the most hypertransmissible, contagious version of the virus we’ve seen to date, for sure—it’s a superspreader strain if there ever was one.”
Moreover, the variant may prove to be more dangerous to people than previous versions of SARS-CoV-2. As reported in a recent article in Scientific American, “A study in Scotland, published in the Lancet, found the hospitalization rate of patients with that variant was about 85 percent higher than that of people with the Alpha variant.” Of particular concern is the presence of K417N mutation within the Delta variant.
Although a bit technical in nature, the upshot of K417N is that it has a robust ability to bind to the receptor sites of our cells, thus leading to infection, which then may cause the more severed symptoms of COVID-19.
All of this translates into people who are more difficult to treat. Olivier Schwartz, head of the Virus and Immunity Unit at Institut Pasteur in France, speculates, “In the Delta variant lineage, the presence of the K417N mutation detected in some cases is a strong indicator that the variant may evolve to be more resistant to neutralizing antibodies.” Keep in mind that this premise has not been thoroughly researched, so current findings are tentative.
However, all is not grim. Although the Delta variant seems to have a higher rate of infectivity, current COVID-19 vaccinations seem to offer a strong measure of protection from serious complications, including hospitalizations and death.
Texas offers a microcosm with regard to the both the spread and dynamics of the Delta variant. After fully vaccinated people attending an outdoor wedding in Texas came down with COVID-19, testing showed they had the Delta variant. According to Yahoonews, “Each patient experienced some common signs of a COVID-19 illness, including fever, cough, fatigue, and body aches. Those who’d gotten Moderna and Covaxin also lost their sense of smell. But only the Covaxin recipients suffered truly severe infections: One was hospitalized and given Regeneron’s monoclonal antibody treatment (the same one President Trump received) 10 days after the wedding. The other later died from complications of COVID-19.”
This means that both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines offer some immunity, even against the Delta strain. In fact, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the CDC, recently stated, “Preliminary data from several states over the last few months suggest that 99.5% of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States were in unvaccinated people.”
This perspective seems to be supported by current research. A recent Lancet publication found that “The first dose of the BNT162b2 mRNA vaccine [Pfizer–BioNTech] was associated with a vaccine effect of 91% . . . for reduced COVID-19 hospital admission at 28–34 days post-vaccination” and the “Vaccine effect at the same time interval for the ChAdOx1 [Oxford–AstraZeneca] vaccine was 88%.”
For unvaccinated people, the news is sobering. Dr. Walensky put it bluntly that people who have not been vaccinated “remain susceptible, especially from the transmissible Delta variant, and are particularly at risk for severe illness and death.” With more than half of the United States’ population remaining unvaccinated, the threat of another wave of COVID-19 remains problematic not nationally, but regionally.
As reported by the Washington Post, “. . .health experts anticipate that it will cause surges in communities where vaccination rates are lower, posing the most serious risk to those who are older, sicker and unvaccinated.”
Meanwhile, people are advised to get tested if they feel they have contracted the Delta strain and remain aware of any underlying symptomatology that might indicate they are infected with the new strain, especially younger people.
Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, had this to say: “Covid is also acting differently now. It’s more like a bad cold in this younger population and people don’t realize that and that hasn’t come across in any of the government information. The number one symptom is headache, then followed by sore throat, runny nose and fever.”
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