Text by Henrylito D. Tacio
Photos: rnz.co.nz and webMD.com
There’s so much concern these days about the Delta variant of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). It was first identified in India and is known as B.167.2 in late 2020. It got its current name in May this year from the World Health Organization (WHO), which names notable variants after letters of the Greek alphabet.
Dr. Edsel Maurice Salvana, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the National Institute of Health at the University of the Philippines, said the “(Delta variant) likely drove the Indian surge in April, sickening more than 300,000 per day and killing over 4,000 per day.”
News reports said the Delta variant is causing a spike in COVID-19 infections among unvaccinated people in England, where it can become the dominant variant of the new coronavirus. This recent spike in infections has delayed the country’s reopening.
The Delta variant is also causing surges in the United States, China, and Indonesia. “In the United Kingdom, the variant is now responsible for 90% of all new infections,” Associated Press science writer Aniruddha Ghosal reported. “In the US, it represents 20% of infections, and health officials say it could become the country’s dominant type as well.”
The United Nations health agency is very much concerned with this latest development.
In a regular briefing recently at the Geneva office, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told journalists that the Delta variant has been identified in at least 85 countries and is “spreading rapidly among unvaccinated populations.”
“As some countries ease public health and social measures, we are starting to see increases in transmission around the world,” he was quoted as saying.
A surge in cases translates to more hospitalizations, which continue to stretch healthcare workers and health systems while putting more at risk of death, according to the WHO chief.
He acknowledged that new variants are expected, saying “that’s what viruses do, they evolve” and stressed that “by preventing transmission, we can stem the emergence of variants.
“It’s quite simple: more transmission, more variants. Less transmission, less variants,” Tedros spelled out, upholding that it is even more urgent today to prevent transmission by consistently using public health and social measures along with vaccines.
The WHO described the Delta variant as “the fourth variant of concern.” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO’s Chief Scientist, explains it this way: “Because it’s both more transmissible than the previous variant and also has been able to resist the antibodies that we have in our blood.
“What that means,” she says, “is that you need a higher level of antibodies to overcome this variant as compared to, let’s say, the Alpha variant.”
This is indeed very alarming. “Incredibly infectious” was how WHO advisor and Professor of Epidemiology at the University of New South Wales Professor Mary-Louise McLaws described the Delta variant.
Health experts believe mutations in the Delta variant make it replicate faster and evade the body’s immunity mechanism. The United Nations health agency says Delta is the “fastest and fittest” variant yet.
Compared with the original strain of COVID-19, “(the Delta variant) is 60% more transmissible indoors, and up to 40% more transmissible outdoors,” said Dr. Salvana, who posted the information in his Facebook account.
The Philippines initially detected 13 cases of Delta Covid-19 variant, all involving returning Filipino travelers. But last June 21, four more cases were reported.
“Three of the four additional Delta variant cases are returning overseas Filipino (ROF) from the MV Eastern Hope, a ship currently docked in South Korea,” said a press release from the Department of Health (DOH).
According to the report, the three Filipinos were repatriated back to the Philippines on June 3, “upon detection of the PCR-positive Filipino crew in South Korea.”
After their arrival in the country, “two cases have completed the 10-day isolation” and “were discharged upon certification of recovery.” As for the remaining one, he was “still admitted in a hospital in Metro Manila.”
The fourth case was also a ROF who arrived from Saudi Arabia on May 24. “The case has completed the mandated isolation, tagged as recovered on June 10, discharged thereafter from the isolation facility, and is now under strict home quarantine as per protocols of the LGU of destination.”
The good news is: “There is still no community transmission of the Delta variant (in the country),” said Dr. Salvana.
The government is doing its best to stop the Delta variant from infecting Filipinos. Since it originated from India, it imposed a travel ban on the said country from April 29 to May 16. Later on, it expanded the travel restrictions by including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Oman, and the United Arab of Emirates.
Last June 29, the government again extended the travel ban for travelers from India and six more countries (now including Nepal) until July 15. “This is a proactive measure amid the implementation of international border control because of COVID-19 Delta variant,” Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in a virtual presser.
As Dr. Salvana pointed out, the biggest risk for entry for Delta variants in the country is poor border control. “When Taiwan decreased their quarantine protocols for unvaccinated pilots to three days with testing, they ended up with a large surge,” he said, adding that a recent Delta case in Australia has been linked to a driver who interacted with international flight crews.
“Public health measures including face masks and face shields, strict border quarantine, and vaccination policies are anchored on real science and will save lives,” pointed out Dr. Salvana, who was trained in infectious diseases and tropical medicine at the University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. “This is not a popularity contest. The virus doesn’t care if it’s election season. It will kill people regardless of who you support. Let’s all protect each other.”
What’s even more frightening is the emergence of the Delta Plus variant. The newer variant received the “Plus” designation because it’s not quite different enough from the original Delta variant to merit its own Greek alphabet letter.
The good news is that all of the WHO emergency use listed vaccines do protect against developing severe disease, hospitalization, and death due to the Delta variant.
“There are studies now from countries where there is a predominance of Delta variant to show that people who’ve been vaccinated are much less likely to end up in hospital,” says Dr. Swaminathan. “And you need the full course of vaccination in order to give you that full immunity to protect you against the Delta variant. So the important thing is if you have access to a vaccine that’s approved by WHO, please do take it and take the full course so that you can be protected both against the Delta and other variants of COVID.”
According to Dr. Swaminathan, the main goal of these vaccines is really to prevent severe disease, “because what we want is for people, even if they get the infection, is for them to recover from it and not become seriously ill.”
That’s something that all of the WHO emergency-listed vaccines do really well. “Of course, there are different levels,” says Dr. Swaminathan. “You read about the efficacy trials. They may range from 70 to 90%. But in terms of just looking at the prevention of severe disease and hospitalization, they’re all very good, over 90% effective.”
A report from WebMd.com stated that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines “appear to be about 88% effective against the Delta variant after two shots,” quoting Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration. The Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines seems “to be about 60% effective,” USA Today reports.
Again, the vaccines vary in the protection against getting an infection. “Ideally, you know, you’d like a vaccine which completely prevents you from getting infected therefore, you can’t get ill,” Dr. Swaminathan explains. “But none of the vaccines that we have currently are 100% protective. So this is why even if you’re vaccinated, you can get the infection, but the chances are you’ll get very mild symptoms or no symptoms at all and that the chances of getting seriously ill are really, really low.”
The big question now: if you can still get infected and also infect others even after you are fully vaccinated, then why get vaccinated?
“There are two very good reasons to get vaccinated,” Dr. Swaminathan says. “The first is to protect yourself from getting severely ill if you catch the infection. We know that there’s a certain proportion of people of all age groups who do get severely ill, and you could have a chance of dying from this disease. And this is what we want to protect. So that’s why you want to get vaccinated in the first place. But secondly, if you get vaccinated and yes, you may still get the infection because we know that these vaccines are not going to protect you 100% from the infection. So there is a small risk you get infected, and you could pass it on to others.
“Why do you want to take the risk of doing that?” Dr. Swaminathan asks. “Why do you want to be one person in the chain of transmission? What we need to do in the world today is to break those chains of transmission, get control of this disease. So that’s why we say get vaccinated as soon as you can get access to your vaccine when your turn comes and continue to take all the precautions so that you are completely protecting yourself as well as protecting others around you.”