Despite many countries making progress on vaccinating their populations against COVID-19 and resuming pre-pandemic activities — traveling, going back into the office, and meeting with friends and family members in close quarters — the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, and not just in nations that have yet to receive their fair share of vaccine doses.
The UK, France, and Germany have administered at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to over 50% of their populations, according to the Oxford University-based publication Our World in Data. The same is true for the United States, Canada, and Israel.
But in all of these countries, there has also been a recent rise in cases, in part due to the emergence of COVID-19 variants.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), genetic variants of the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2) have been circulating throughout the pandemic. While there are four variants that have been classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as “Variants of Concern,” the Delta variant has quickly become the most prevailing.
Originally known as B.1.617.2., the Delta variant was first identified in India in October 2020. Now, Delta has been reported in 124 countries and is the dominant strain in many, such as the US, UK, and India.
Some governments are responding to the uptick in cases by reinstating lockdown restrictions, as is the case in Australia, Indonesia, and Hong Kong. Other nations are considering whether they should start offering booster shots to fully vaccinated people.
Everywhere, individuals are wondering what they can do to end the pandemic that has killed over 4 million people globally.
To learn how Global Citizens can protect themselves, and others, from the Delta variant of COVID-19, Global Citizen spoke with Anna Bershteyn, PhD, an assistant professor within the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health.
Here are the five biggest things she told us about the Delta variant that can help end the pandemic for everyone, everywhere.
1. The Delta variant is spreading more easily than the original strain of SARS-CoV-2.
While public health experts acknowledge the need to continue investigating the specific concerns the Delta variant poses — such as whether it causes people to experience more severe symptoms or makes monoclonal antibody treatments less effective — one thing is clear: The Delta variant is spreading much faster than other strains of COVID-19.
“It's estimated to spread about 2.5 times more easily than the variants we saw a year ago, and about 1.6 times faster than the [Alpha variant first identified in the UK],” Bershteyn said.
What makes the Delta variant more transmissible comes from a mutation on the spike protein that increases its ability to bind to human cells. In addition to being more infectious, studies are showing that the Delta variant is also leading to higher viral loads in the respiratory tract and may result in different side effects from other virus variants.
2. COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective against the Delta variant.
As case counts rise in regions of the world that have higher vaccination rates, there is a term that is causing widespread concern and has the potential to inspire misinformation about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines: breakthrough infections.
Breakthrough infections are when people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 contract the virus anyway. But while no vaccine is 100% effective, it is also important to remember that the WHO-approved COVID-19 vaccines protect against severe disease, hospitalization, and death, even when the Delta variant is involved.
Bershteyn underscored this fact, pointing to a report from the CDC that demonstrated how the available vaccines in the US have held up with the introduction of the Delta variant.
“Just before Delta took over, the CDC estimated that the real-world efficacy of vaccines in the United States was about 90% for preventing any level of COVID-19 symptoms, and much higher at preventing hospitalization and death from COVID-19,” Bershteyn said. “Those numbers haven't changed with Delta taking over in the US.”
In the UK, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the country’s vaccine program had prevented an estimated 52,000 hospitalizations, according to the Guardian.
While fully vaccinated people face a lower risk of contracting the Delta variant — and experiencing a worse case of COVID-19 — than the non-vaccinated, case counts will continue to rise and threaten the world’s progress of ending the pandemic until more people are immunized.
3. To best fight the Delta variant, offering booster shots to fully vaccinated people is less of a priority.
Several countries are taking steps to administer booster shots to fully vaccinated people to combat the Delta variant.
In Israel, the health ministry began offering booster shots of the Pfizer vaccine to high-risk populations that have already been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Russian health authorities also launched a campaign to give a third shot of the domestically produced Sputnik V vaccine to people who were immunized more than six months ago.
These initiatives are leading individuals from countries around the world to wonder if the immunity provided by the COVID-19 vaccines are wearing off. But while international health authorities may continue to debate whether booster shots are necessary, Bershteyn said that more data is needed first.
“We might get to a point in the future when we realize the vaccines are starting to wear off. That time could be years from now — we don't know yet,” Bershteyn said. “So, if you're fully vaccinated, don't get another booster shot just yet, just be ready to get one in case it's recommended in the future.”
4. Ensuring everyone, everywhere has access to COVID-19 vaccines is a bigger priority.
Viruses will evolve as long as they are widely transmitted, which is why vaccine nationalism and vaccine hesitancy are two of the biggest threats to ending the pandemic. Take countries like South Africa, where only 7% of the population has been immunized: Deadly surges of COVID-19 cases are decimating the population as it waits to increase its stock of vaccine doses.
“The best use of the vaccines right now is to reach unvaccinated people in the US and globally, rather than to boost people who are fully vaccinated,” Bershteyn said.
It’s true that breakthrough infections are a bigger concern for vulnerable groups — such as elderly populations and those with immunodeficiency disorders — because there is a higher risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19. But until vaccines become available to people around the world, the priority should be expanding vaccine access instead of worrying about the COVID-19 variants becoming resistant to the vaccines.
“Many viruses never become resistant to vaccines. Think of the vaccines we have used for decades, like [the one used against measles, mumps, and rubella],” Bershteyn said. “Other viruses end up creating different strains, or serotypes, that each require their own vaccine or a combo vaccine to cover them all.”
She added: “If that happens with SARS-CoV-2, we might need booster shots with new vaccines. We can reduce the chance of that happening by vaccinating as much of the world as possible now, so that the virus has less opportunity to evolve in the future.”
5. Get vaccinated, encourage your loved ones to get vaccinated, and wear a mask.
In countries like the US and UK — where a majority of the adult population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine — some people wonder whether the Delta variant will fuel rising cases among unvaccinated children.
In the US, individuals who are ages 12 years and older are able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. In the UK, only people 18 years of age and older can get vaccinated. With the school year starting soon in many areas of the world, Bershteyn said that continuing to take precautionary measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 can go a long way.
“Until kids are vaccinated, the Delta variant could spread in schools if layers of precautions are not in place,” she said. “These include vaccinating everyone who is eligible, wearing masks, spending time outdoors or in well-ventilated rooms, cohorting, avoiding crowds and close contact, and hand hygiene.”
The WHO recommends that even people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 continue to wear a mask in response to nations easing public health guidelines as they vaccinate their populations. While the CDC previously stated that fully vaccinated individuals could forgo the mask, it reversed course and changed its guidance on Tuesday.
Now, the CDC recommends that the fully-vaccinated wear a mask where COVID-19 transmission is substantial, where laws mandate mask-wearing, or if they have a weakened immune system. This change is in direct response to the Delta variant.
As public health experts continue to look into virus variants that are preventing an end to the pandemic, it is important to remember that only 13.8% of the world’s population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. By increasing access to COVID-19 vaccines and pledging dollars and doses to vaccine sharing initiatives like COVAX, government leaders from around the world can ensure the Delta variant no longer poses a threat to anyone.
COVID-19 vaccines have the potential to help the world turn a corner during this pandemic and prevent needless suffering and death. The Delta variant is a formidable obstacle to making sure that happens.
But there is hope. Right now, the UK is reporting a six-day drop in COVID-19 cases after the Delta variant contributed to a surge in infection rates. Other countries that have access to vaccine doses may see similar drops, which is why increasing vaccine access is one of the most important steps government leaders can take to end the pandemic.
For individuals, Bershteyn pointed out that we already know what we have to do to protect ourselves from the Delta variant.
“The things you need to do haven't changed,” she said. “Get vaccinated, stay away from stuffy crowded places, wear masks around people you're not sure are vaccinated, and wash your hands.”
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