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Business & Technology

Coronavirus delta variant: What you should know

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Coronavirus delta variant: What you should know

2021-07-16 06:23:15

By K. Shalini

The novel coronavirus is, unfortunately for us, good at doing what viruses do best: mutating in order to become more efficient and infect more people. The delta variant, a strain first documented in India, has caused devastation in the country and is now the dominant strain in the US and many other countries.

The delta variant's growth across the globe has caused some countries in the Asia-Pacific region to reimpose lockdowns and other restrictions governments had lifted. Notably, COVID-19 outbreaks in Australia, fueled by the delta variant, have forced the cities of Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Darwin back into strict lockdowns.

The strain is about 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant first documented in the UK, British epidemiologist Neil Ferguson told reporters in June, and it's suspected to carry the potential for more severe disease. In a Scottish study published on June 14, researchers found that the delta variant carried double the risk of hospitalization compared with the alpha variant.

The US is fortunate to have great vaccine availability, and 67.9% of the adult population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to July 15 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, as the delta variant spreads and many pockets of the country have low vaccination rates, experts worry about the variant's presence and surges in some regions.

All three vaccines available in the US are said to have excellent efficacy against severe disease caused by COVID-19. But how do they fare against the more contagious variant? Research results have been promising, and scientists still urge vaccination as the way out of this deadly pandemic.

Delta's side effects

In mild cases, the delta variant may show up a little differently. Tim Spector, British epidemiologist and co-founder of the ZOE COVID Symptom study in the UK, says that since May, the top symptoms of COVID-19 being recorded in the app have changed. He says the No. 1 symptom of COVID-19 is now headache, followed by sore throat, runny nose and fever -- not the more "classic" COVID-19 symptoms. Coughing is now the fifth-reported symptom.

"I am very concerned" by Delta variant, expert says

"We don't even see loss of smell coming into the top 10 anymore," he says. "This variant seems to be working slightly differently."

Spector says these changes -- which appear to be linked to the delta variant -- may cause people to continue going out, thinking they have a common cold instead of COVID-19.

News of COVID-19 causing a black fungus in the sinuses and brain and hearing loss, among other serious symptoms, in COVID-19 patients from India may be alarming and lead you to believe the delta variant causes new and scarier side effects than older strains of the novel coronavirus. The reality is COVID-19 from all strains and forms is a formidable disease, with a myriad of side effects that can last months after infection in some people. There isn't enough data at this time to support the conclusion that the delta variant causes these atypical symptoms.

Pfizer booster? How the three vaccines compare

Pfizer announced that the company is working on a booster specifically for the delta variant, citing real-world data from Israel that shows that Pfizer's two-dose regimen is less effective against infection from delta compared to previous variants -- down to 64%, though the same data found that the vaccine is still 93% effective at preventing severe disease. In a strange twist, the CDC and Food and Drug Administration issued a joint statement in early July that said (without calling out Pfizer specifically) fully vaccinated Americans do not need a booster at this time. 

Earlier research from late May by the UK body Public Health England found that Pfizer is more effective than what Israel's data shows, and that two doses of Pfizer's or AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine are very effective against the delta variant -- about 88% (Pfizer) and 60% (AstraZeneca). Although this study shows that two doses are about 5 and 6 percentage points less effective, respectively, against the delta variant than the alpha strain, the study also found that both vaccines had about 33.5% effectiveness against delta after one dose of either AstraZeneca or Pfizer -- considerably less protection than two doses of either vaccine.

The Scottish study published in June also confirms Pfizer's and AstraZeneca's effectiveness against infection from the delta variant. Researchers from this study say AstraZeneca gave 60% protection two weeks after the second dose, while Pfizer gave 79% protection two weeks after the second dose.

Meanwhile, in the US, Moderna announced at the end of June that its vaccine appears to be effective against all current coronavirus variants, including delta. Because Moderna and Pfizer are so similar, it seems likely it would perform similarly, but this is particularly promising.

As for Johnson & Johnson (the US' single-dose vaccine), research from the South African Medical Research Council published Thursday found that breakthrough COVID-19 cases in health care workers who got a Johnson & Johnson shot were mild in 94% of cases (moderate cases accounted for 4%, severe cases 2%). The studies were done when beta and delta variants were circulating. The company also announced recently that the Johnson & Johnson shot is effective against delta, possibly even more effective compared to the beta variant in South Africa where previous research was done.

These findings were published after some experts, including Stanford professor Dr. Michael Lin, say that those who got a J&J single-dose vaccine may need a booster sooner than their Pfizer- or Moderna-receiving counterparts in the face of the delta variant. On Twitter, Lin said that while the CDC may be waiting before making an official decision about booster shots, receiving an mRNA vaccine after getting the Johnson & Johnson will likely be safe, and pointed out a study done in Spain that suggests benefits to mixing Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines. (AstraZeneca is a viral vector vaccine, like Johnson & Johnson.)

Moving forward

The expert advice does not seem to change as the coronavirus does -- getting vaccinated and gaining immunity against COVID-19 is the surest way to prevent severe disease caused by any variant. When fewer people get infected with COVID-19, the coronavirus has fewer hosts within which it can mutate and produce new variants.

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