The delta coronavirus variant that devastated India and forced the UK to postpone lifting its remaining coronavirus restrictions is now on the rise in the US. What this means for you depends on whether you are fully vaccinated and where you live.
Experts say we may see the emergence of “two Americas” of COVID: one with high vaccination rates where the delta coronavirus variant poses a low threat, and the other with low vaccination rates that are prone to renewed fatal surges . This gap is in large part driven by partisan policies, with vaccination rates highest in liberal cities and lowest in conservative strongholds in the deep south and rural areas across the country.
“I call it two COVID nations,” Peter Hotez, a vaccine researcher at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told BuzzFeed News.
Wherever there are low vaccination rates, the virus will continue to circulate and mutate, increasing the risk of new, more dangerous variants emerging. With vaccination lagging far behind the US in most of the world, the Delta variant is likely to be followed by more.
The Delta variant, also known as B.1.617.2, was first discovered in India in late 2020 and is believed to have triggered the devastating surge in COVID-19 in that country that began in March. Since then, it has spread to more than 80 countries around the world, including the US – where the CDC officially named it a “worrying variant” on Tuesday.
Data from Public Health England shows that the Delta variant is between 40% and 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, also known as B.1.1.7. First identified in the UK and now the most common variant in the US, the alpha variant is again much more transmissible than previous forms of the coronavirus.
So far, the available vaccines seem to offer good protection against most variants. But the Delta variant appears to be able to escape partial immunity to the coronavirus. Although people who are fully vaccinated still seem well protected, those who only received a two-dose vaccination remain more susceptible.
A study in the UK found that two doses of the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine were 88% effective against developing a COVID case with Delta variant symptoms – not much different from the 93% effectiveness found against the Alpha variant was observed. But after just one dose, the vaccine was only about 33% effective against the Delta variant, compared to more than 50% against alpha. It is unclear how effective natural immunity to previous infection will be in protecting people from the Delta variant.
There is also evidence that the Delta variant can cause more serious illnesses. A case study in Scotland published this week found that the risk of hospitalization with the Delta variant was roughly doubled compared to people infected with the Alpha variant.
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“It’s a nasty virus,” John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, told BuzzFeed News.
With the Delta variant now being blamed for more than 90% of new infections in the UK and with cases and hospital admissions rising again, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Tuesday that he would postpone the lifting of the remaining coronavirus restrictions in England originally planned for June 21st for at least four weeks. (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own health rules but have taken similar steps.)
In the US, the delta variant now appears to be spreading faster than the alpha variant at a similar stage in its rise to dominance, according to data from Ausbruch.info, a coronavirus tracking project by researchers at Scripps Research in La Jolla. California.
It’s unclear whether Delta will dominate as quickly and completely as it did in the UK, where it has replaced an almost entirely alpha-powered breakout. A greater number of competing variants are circulating in the US, making it harder to predict what will happen, Bette Korber, a computer biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, told BuzzFeed News. But she expects Delta to become the most common variant in the US within weeks. “It’s really quick,” said Korber.
Health experts say the US could largely protect itself from the Delta variant by rapidly increasing vaccination rates, which have slowed in recent months. However, they fear that some people who have not yet been vaccinated may look at what happened to the alpha variant and decide that they can afford to wait.
In late March, as COVID spiked in Michigan and cases spiked nationwide, CDC director Rochelle Walensky described her sense of “impending doom” about a fourth wave of coronavirus in the US fueled by the alpha strain. But the surge turned out to be small and short-lived.
Given the expected rate of spread of the Delta variant and the fact that one vaccine dose is insufficient to provide good protection, the decision to postpone vaccination is a risky one. “Some of these people are going to get a nasty surprise,” Bob Wachter, chairman of the University of California’s medical school at San Francisco, told BuzzFeed News.
The low vaccine intake in the south and in rural areas across the country makes these areas most susceptible to the Delta variant. “I think there is a good chance there will be significant increases in winter or fall, and they will almost exclusively hit people who are not vaccinated and strike in regions with low vaccine intake,” said Wachter.
But it could be difficult to convince people who have previously resisted vaccination, as the skepticism seems to be driven to a large extent by entrenched political loyalties. According to a poll by CBS News / YouGov released this week, only 52% of Republicans said they were partially or fully vaccinated and 29% said they had no intention of getting vaccinated. Among Democrats, 77% said they had already been vaccinated and only 5% said they had no intention of getting the vaccine.
The county-level vaccine adoption data also shows a strong association with voting in the 2020 presidential election.
“Somehow we have to break this notion that allegiance to conservatism and the Republican Party has to do with not getting vaccinated,” said Hotez. “It’s really worrying.”