COVID cases are declining. Slowly, cities and states are beginning to open up. The end of the pandemic feels in sight. The last thing any of us want is news that might set us back or upset the delicate crawl toward post-pandemic life.
That’s why when I first heard rumblings about the Delta variant initially identified in India, my instinct was to plug my ears and close my eyes. Ignorance is bliss and all that. But, ignorance isn’t really bliss. Not in this case, anyway. When it comes to COVID-19, ignorance is the enemy. Knowing what we’re up against is strength. Understanding the variant and how to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities is power.
What Is The Delta Variant?
The Delta variant, also known as the B.1.617.2 coronavirus variant, was originally discovered in India. It has since become “one the most — if not the most — worrisome strain of the coronavirus circulating globally.”
The variant has made its way into at least 62 countries, including the U.S. By all accounts, it’s currently the dominant strain in the U.K. It’s also likely the cause for a flare of cases in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, China’s most populous province, and has caused officials to lock down certain areas.
The Delta Variant Is More Contagious Than Other Variants
According to the British health minister, the Delta variant is about 40% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, (formerly known as the B.1.1.7 variant), which was already more transmissible than the original coronavirus that began circulating in December 2019.
Percentages are useful, but they can become meaningless without context. Zeynep Tufekci broke down what more transmissible means in an op-ed for the New York Times. She explained the danger of increased transmissibility like this:
“If a virus that could previously infect three people on average can now infect four, it looks like a small increase. Yet if you start with just two infected people in both scenarios, just 10 iterations later, the former will have caused about 40,000 cases while the latter will be more than 524,000, a nearly 13-fold difference.”
The higher transmissibility could make the Delta variant the “most dangerous variant yet.”
Experts Do Not Expect The Delta Variant To Cause More Deaths
While it’s clear that the Delta variant is more contagious, it is unclear whether the variant is more deadly or causes more severe disease. In Britain, deaths have not really increased. That’s good news, obviously.
One reason for this is due to Britain’s vaccination program. Britain’s most vulnerable population has been largely vaccinated. About 90 percent of Britain’s who are 65 and older are protected from infection.
However, experts aren’t celebrating yet. With respect to COVID infections, deaths tend to rise a few weeks after case numbers rise. “There are reasons to be hopeful — we’re not seeing a big trend in hospital admissions — but it’s early days,” James Naismith, a structural biologist and the director of Britain’s Rosalind Franklin Institute, a medical research center, told The New York Times.
The Spread Of The Delta Variant Could Delay The U.K.’s Full Reopening
The U.K., which had one of the strictest lockdowns in the early part of 2021 due to the Alpha variant, is scheduled to fully reopen on June 21. The Delta variant might interrupt that plan.
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the BBC that the Delta variant “does make the calculation more difficult for June 21.” He added that the U.K. government will review the data for another week and then make a decision.
It’s unclear whether the U.S. would follow suit. We seem more inclined to open at full speed than the U.K., but we do still have a significant number of unvaccinated individuals. A recent White House press briefing confirmed that 52 percent of adults are fully vaccinated, leaving a little less than half unvaccinated and presumably vulnerable to infection by the Delta variant. That’s enough for a potential surge, especially in some parts of the country.
And just yesterday, President Biden warned that the Delta variant is spreading rapidly among young people in the U.K., and urged all Americans eligible for vaccination to get the shot.
The choice for the U.S. may end up depending on whether an increase in case numbers leads to a surge of hospitalizations or deaths—which as of now it does not. If that changes, unvaccinated folks might face more stringent indoor restrictions.
Vaccines Do Protect Against The Delta Variant
The good (great?!) news is that the vaccines do protect against the Delta variant. Researchers confirmed that the vaccines seem effective against this new variant, even if someone has only received one shot. Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins epidemiologist, told the New York Times that the evidence continues to point to the fact that first shots provide significant protection, including against the Delta variant.
Nevertheless, Devi Sridhar of the University of Edinburgh, cautioned folks who’ve only received one shot to not behave as if they are fully vaccinated.
The Delta variant is a prime example for why we can’t throw out all our pandemic restrictions just yet, and why everyone must get vaccinated as soon as they are able. The more people who are vaccinated against COVID, the less chances the virus has to infect and then mutate. So far we’ve been lucky that the vaccines remain mostly protective against the circulating variants, but we can’t bank on luck forever. We must bank on science. And the science is clear. Vaccines work—to protect us individually, and also collectively from the rise of new, dangerous variants.