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Covid-19: Will the Delta Variant Lead a New Global Surge?

Representational image. REUTERS

Representational image. REUTERS

As masses of the population even in the US and UK remain unvaccinated, the Delta variant poses a serious risk.

Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said his country could see a new Covid-19 outbreak by September, driven by the Delta variant. This is when India is expected to see its third Covid wave. As per Outbreak.info database, 10% of the new cases in the US are caused by the Delta variant and the growth has been fast, from 1% to 10% in just one month.

And like India, it could be more disastrous in the US if left unchecked.

Till February-March 2021, many Indians believed they were past the disastrous phase of the pandemic that has battered the world since 2020. Lockdowns were totally removed and people had almost forgotten to follow the Covid appropriate behaviour.

The result? India saw a disastrous second Covid wave, counting for cases and deaths multiple times this year. The US could see the same fatality. Like India, the country feels it has won the Covid war with its rapid scale of vaccination.

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As per the Johns Hopkins University Covid database, the US has fully vaccinated 44% of its population. The ‘Our World in Data’ Covid database said 52% of the country is already partially vaccinated. ‘The no mask at most places’ rule applies to the fully vaccinated people.

But the rule ignores social and scientific reasons, that if left unchecked, may lead to a Covid surge soon. There are flaws in the rule — for example, there is no way to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated people in an indoor crowd like a party or a gathering, or even at a grocery store as people aren’t required to show proof of vaccination. Following or not following Covid appropriate behaviour is a mass phenomenon and the US has seen many protests across the country over lockdown measures and Covid protection norms.

The second reason is scientific and is related to the ‘vaccine resistant’ nature of the Delta variant.

According to a recent study done by Public Health England (PHE), compared to the Alpha variant, first found in the UK, the Delta variant reduces Covid vaccine efficacy. This means there is a larger risk of infections and re-infections.

A study conducted by AIIMS and the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) in India corroborates this. It found that the Delta variant can infect people even if they are fully vaccinated with Covishield and Covaxin doses. The study also finds that the Delta variant is more vaccine-resistant than the Alpha variant.

Though it is being said that a fully vaccinated person with Pfizer or Moderna vaccines is more protected against the Delta variant than AstraZeneca developed Covishield vaccine. We cannot forget the fact that 56% or around 18.5 crores Americans are still unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, particularly with the feeling that their country’s scientific advancement has scored a victory over the deadly virus.

Also read — Decoding Long Covid: A Haematologist Tells Us Why Gum and Nose Bleeds Post Covid Need Attention

India Looking at Uncertain Future

We’re currently in the unlock phase after the disastrous second Covid wave, and media reports suggest that Covid appropriate norms are being openly violated all over the country. This becomes even more problematic with the low level of vaccination in the country. So far, just 3.56% of the population in India is fully vaccinated, while the share of the population partially vaccinated is at 15.17%. This means a population base of over 131 crore people, who are unvaccinated, stare at an uncertain future with the threat of Covid’s third wave looming large, driven by a more infectious Delta variant.

In India, the month of May saw daily vaccination drop by 34% and monthly vaccination by 32%. In the first week, the country administered 1.94 crore Covid vaccine doses, almost 70 lakh doses more than the first week of May but was still short of the total vaccination done in the first week of April when 2.17 crore people were vaccinated.

The Delta Variant is Spreading Fast

The Delta variant is more transmissible or infectious than the Alpha variant. The PHE study found that the Delta variant spreads 60% faster than the Alpha variant with a doubling rate of just 4.5 days in some regions of the UK. The variant detected for the first time in India in October 2020 has spread to 74 countries so far says the Covid data tracker of the US government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) health agency. It means the world may see another Delta variant driven Covid wave led by India and the US if strict Covid appropriate behaviour is not followed and the level of vaccination remains low in many countries.

India’s official genome sequence agency has found the presence of the Delta variants in most of the Covid samples it tested and that means the second and fatal Covid wave in India was driven by it.

The Delta variant has replaced the Alpha variant to become the dominant Covid strain in the UK, and since it spreads much faster — UK health secretary Matt Hancock said it was behind 91% of new cases in the country — the country is taking a very cautious approach in easing lockdown restrictions. With 30,000 confirmed cases in a week, Britain is mulling over extending the lockdown period for a month. The country was scheduled to lift all lockdown restrictions on June 21.

Another mutation in the Delta variant makes it even more resistant to the existing support treatment for Covid patients. This is known as the Delta+ or B.1.617.2.1 lineage or AY.1. The mutation, called K417N, can be resistant to the cocktail of monoclonal antibodies used to treat Covid patients, said scientists.

Many countries including India and UK, so far, have detected the Delta+ variant in small numbers but if this mutant strain witnesses a significant growth, it will deal a double fatal blow. The Delta variant is already more resistant to the Covid vaccine and this means more chances of re-infection and greater health risks associated with Covid-19 symptoms. Combine this with the Delta+ variant, and we are looking at a worrying and scary future.

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first published:June 15, 2021, 11:33 IST