The most effective Western vaccines still seem to provide strong protection against the highly contagious Delta variant, which was first discovered in India and is now spread in over 90 countries.
The World Health Organization warned that this week's pandemic could be delayed by the combination of easy-to-spread strains and insufficiently immunized people.
The delta variant is well-positioned to exploit these weaknesses.
COVID-19 can cause severe suffering and even death. The suffering and death we now see from COVID-19 can be avoided with vaccines all over the country," Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stated Thursday.
Some parts of Europe have reinstituted travel quarantines due to concerns about the variant. Several Australian cities are under outbreak-sparked lockdowns. Just as Japan prepares for the Olympics, some infected athletes are also being kept away. Even in countries that have had successful immunization campaigns, the mutation is still causing concern. However, it has not yet been eradicated from enough people.
The mutant, for example, has caused Britain, where almost half of the population is fully vaccinated to delay for a month the long-anticipated lifting COVID-19 restrictions. This is because cases are increasing by about 1% every nine days.
According to Dr. Hilary Babcock, Washington University at St. Louis, the U.S. is still "vulnerable for these flare-ups or rebounds".
She said that the variants are able "to find any gaps in protection," and pointed to how Missouri's least-vaccinated counties suddenly have a surge in hospital beds and intensive care units, mostly filled with people under 40 who have never had their shots.
Nearly half of the U.S. population is immunized. CDC's Walensky stated that about 1,000 counties in the Midwest or Southeast with lower vaccination rates than 30% are "our most vulnerable."
The variant is most dangerous in countries with few vaccinations. The WHO stated Thursday that Africa is experiencing a rapid rise in cases, partly due to the mutation. Meanwhile, areas bordering India in Bangladesh are also witnessing a variant-fueled surge. Fiji, which survived the first year without any deaths from the virus, now has a severe outbreak. Afghanistan is desperate for oxygen because of this.
Although the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, the delta variant is not the only one. Here are the facts scientists have so far:
EASIER SPREAD IS THE CHIEF THREAT
Scientists think the delta variant is approximately 50% more transmissible that other types. Scientists are still trying to figure out why. However, early indications suggest that certain mutations could help to ease the process of how the virus enters human cells. Priyamvada Acharya is a structural biologist at Duke Human Vaccine Institute.
ISN'T IT DANGEROUS?
It is difficult to determine if the delta variant causes people to be sicker. British experts believe there are preliminary signs that it might increase hospitalizations, but no evidence that it is more fatal.
It caused a massive COVID-19 spike in India in February and Dr. Jacob John, Christian Medical College at Vellore, said that "this time around there were a lot more people who are very sick than before." He cautioned, however, that an "explosion" in cases did not necessarily mean that this version was more risky. More cases often mean more hospitalizations.
FULL VACCINATION IS THE BEST PROTECTION
British researchers discovered that two doses of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine or AstraZeneca vaccine were slightly less effective in blocking symptoms from the delta variant than earlier mutations. This is important because they are extremely protective against hospitalization.
There's a catch. Only one dose was effective against the delta variant of the virus than the earlier versions. Britain, which initially extended the interval between doses, has now accelerated second shots.
It is not known if the delta variant can be vaccinated against other vaccines such as those made in China or Russia.
Experts believe that the Moderna vaccine (the same as Pfizer’s) should offer similar protection. Johnson & Johnson is still studying the effectiveness of its one-dose vaccine against this variant. Johnson & Johnson notes that its shot protects against another worrisome variant -- the beta variant, which emerged in South Africa. This variant is still considered to be the greatest challenge for COVID-19 vaccines.
WHAT ABOUT MASKS?
The WHO has advised governments to not lift pandemic restrictions too soon. This includes advising everyone to continue wearing masks, even those who have been vaccinated.
The CDC in the United States maintains that it is safe for fully vaccinated people to wear masks. However, it's impossible to determine if people who are not wearing masks have been vaccinated. Local governments can establish stricter guidelines. Los Angeles County health officials said that masks are still recommended for everyone, despite the fact that the delta variant has been spreading locally.
This may seem confusing. The virus spreads faster in certain areas, so the vaccine recipients are at greater risk of contracting a milder or more severe infection to others.
Missouri's fully vaccinated Babcock ensures she always has a spare mask on her person in case she is needed.