The Delta variant: What scientists know

Malika Magomedrasulova gets vaccinated in Moscow
Malika Magomedrasulova gets vaccinated against the coronavirus in Moscow, June 16, 2021, where the mayor said on Friday, June 18, 2021, that 89.3 percent of all new coronavirus cases there involve the highly contagious Delta variant. (Photo: NYTimes)
Minister of Health Firas Al-Hawari said on Saturday that 245 cases of the super-contagious Delta variant were reported in Jordan, 222 of which were recorded in Amman, while the rest were recorded in Mafraq, Zarqa, and Karak.اضافة اعلان

In an interview with Al-Mamlaka TV, Hawari said that 87 percent of those infected with the Delta variant were not inoculated, while the rest only received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus is now responsible for about 1 in every 5 COVID-19 cases in the United States, health officials said last week, and its prevalence had doubled in the two weeks before the briefing, they said.

First identified in India, Delta is one of several “variants of concern,” as designated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. It has spread rapidly through India and Britain.

Its appearance in the United States is not surprising. And with vaccinations ticking up and COVID-19 case numbers falling, it’s unclear how much of a problem Delta will cause here. Still, its swift rise has prompted concerns that it might jeopardize the nation’s progress in beating back the pandemic.

“The Delta variant is currently the greatest threat in the US to our attempt to eliminate COVID-19,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, said at the briefing on June 22. The good news, he said, is that the vaccines authorized in the United States work against the variant. “We have the tools,” he said. “So let’s use them and crush the outbreak.”

Here are answers to some common questions about the Delta variant.

Why are people worried about the Delta variant?Delta, formerly known as B.1.617.2, is believed to be the most transmissible variant yet, spreading more easily than both the original strain of the virus and the Alpha variant first identified in Britain. Public health officials there have said that Delta could be 50 percent more contagious than Alpha, although estimates of its infectiousness vary.

Other evidence suggests that the variant may be able to partly evade the antibodies made by the body after a coronavirus infection or vaccination. And the variant may render certain monoclonal antibody treatments less effective, the CDC notes.

Delta may also cause more severe illness. A recent Scottish study, for instance, found that people infected by the Delta variant were roughly twice as likely to be hospitalized than those infected with Alpha. But uncertainties remain, scientists said.

“The severe disease piece I think is the one question that really hasn’t been answered yet,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

Where is it spreading?Delta has been reported in 80 countries. It is now the most common variant in India and Britain, where it accounts for more than 90 percent of cases.

Delta was first detected in Jordan in early May, in three people, who were reported to not have travelled abroad, indicating that the variant may have been present in the Kingdom at an earlier date.

While the minister of health announced the cumulative cases of the Delta virus, there is no public record of the exact distribution of infections with the various variants out of the total active caseload, which stood at 6,417 on Saturday.

Out of those, there are 296 cases involving different variants, the minister said on Saturday.

Delta was first identified in the United States in March. Though Alpha remains the most prevalent variant there, Delta has spread quickly. In early April, Delta represented just 0.1 percent of US cases, according to the CDC. By early May, it accounted for 1.3 percent of cases, and by early June, that figure had jumped to 9.5 percent. As of a few days before the briefing, the estimate hit 20.6 percent, Fauci said.

If I’m vaccinated, do I need to worry?The Delta variant is unlikely to pose much risk to people who have been fully vaccinated, experts said.

“If you’re fully vaccinated, I would largely not worry about it,” said Dr Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

According to one recent study, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 88 percent effective at protecting against symptomatic disease caused by Delta, nearly matching its 93 percent effectiveness against the Alpha variant. But a single dose of the vaccine was just 33 percent effective against Delta, the study found.

“Fully immunized individuals should do well with this new phase of the epidemic,” said Dr Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “However, the protection offered by a single dose appears low, and of course if you are not at all vaccinated, consider yourself at high risk.”

Delta is likely to infect “large numbers” of unvaccinated people, he said.

Will it cause a new surge?Mohannad Al-Nsour, member of the National Epidemiological Committee and executive director of the Eastern Mediterranean Public Health Network suggested that the cases could act as a trigger for Jordan to “monitor and revise our actions,” initiating “plans towards taking more cautious measures and applying the plans and manuals that we agreed on.”

In general, the epidemiological situation in the Kingdom “is good, in terms of number of cases, positivity rates, and admissions to hospitals.”

But even though they were expected, the Delta cases are an “alarming issue” that indicate “we need to strengthen our surveillance systems and make sure we continue doing lab tests and other things.”

So while Delta may account for an increasing percentage of cases, it is not yet clear whether it will drive up total case numbers.

Still, vaccination rates are not yet at a safe level. Delta could fuel outbreaks among the unvaccinated, or among young people, who are less likely to be vaccinated than their elders.

By the end of last week, 24.45 percent of the population in Jordan had received at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine, and around 14 percent were fully inoculated, according to Our World in Data.

“In places where there’s still a lot of susceptibility to the virus, it opens a window for cases to start going up again,” said Justin Lessler, an infectious disease public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University. “But even in those states, and certainly nationally, we’re probably not getting back to the numbers we were seeing last winter.”

Still, he said, it could prolong our path out of the pandemic. “It continues the doldrums,” he said.

What can I do?Get vaccinated. If you are already vaccinated, encourage your family, friends and neighbors to get vaccinated. Vaccination is likely to slow the spread of all the variants and reduce the odds that new, even more dangerous variants emerge.

“I encourage people who are vaccinated to trust in the vaccines but be cognizant that new variants will continue to occur where transmission exists,” said Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease public health researcher at George Mason University. “So it’s really about ensuring local, national and global vaccination.”

In Jordan, and in light of the current vaccination rates, Mohannad Al-Nsour, member of the National Epidemiological Committee and executive director of the Eastern Mediterranean Public Health Network, says that some precautionary measures are also necessary, such as reconsidering mass gatherings, social distancing, and wearing masks.

“The citizens, the workers, and also the in-country institutions should follow up and measure these” procedures and ensure they are followed, Nsour said.

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