September 16, 2021
On September 9th, the Ministry of Health confirmed that the highly transmissible Covid-19 Delta variant, followed by the Alpha and Gamma variants, were the predominant coronavirus variants in the country based samples that were sent for testing in Brazil. As scientists and public health experts work to better understand what impact these new variants will have on the course of the pandemic, here’s what we do and don’t know so far.
Just how many variants are out there? Variants are fairly normal occurrences. As they pop up, some will fade away. Others can become potential threats. Right now, there are about four “variants of concern” in the U.S.: alpha, beta, delta and gamma. These variants are labeled as such because they have increased rates of transmission. They can also lead to increased hospitalizations or deaths, major reductions in the neutralization of viruses by antibodies or reductions in the effectiveness of treatments or vaccines. It might also be a little harder to detect variants of concern.
Why the delta variant is alarming? Experts say the “delta” variant is causing the most concern around the world because a particular strain of the delta variant (a mutated version of the variant that is more infectious) is responsible for the recent surge of cases and deaths in the United States, the United Kingdom and The Bahamas. The main reason for concern: Experts believe it to be up to 60% more transmissible than the original “Alpha” strain of COVID-19 and is the driving force behind the enormous surge in cases – and, subsequently, COVID-19 deaths – particularly in India in the spring.
In mid-May in the United States, the delta variant accounted for accounted for only 2.5% of U.S. cases but by the end of July, that number had increased to 93% for all new cases, according to the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC). “The delta variant is 2x more contagious than previous variants and has caused substantial morbidity in people of all ages with hospitalizations surpassing previous records,” says Dr Daniel Rhoads, a microbiologist and pathologist with Cleveland Clinic. Delta it is also said to cause more severe illness than previous variants in unvaccinated people.
So, how does a virus mutate? While the idea of a virus mutating might sound scary, it’s actually quite normal. Viruses mutate constantly.
All viruses are made up of a bundle of genetic material (either DNA or RNA) that’s covered by a protective coating of proteins. Once a virus gets into your body – usually through your mouth or nose – it latches onto one of your cells. The virus’s DNA or RNA then enters your cell, where it can make copies of itself that go off and infect other cells. If the virus can copy itself and hijack enough of your cells without being wiped out by your immune system, that’s how you get sick. We expect viruses to evolve but not every mutation is meaningful, says Dr. Rhoads. But occasionally, a mutation helps the virus copy itself or get into our cells more easily and replicate.
Does the vaccine protect against variants? In the end, the shape-shifting nature of the coronavirus (and all viruses) is something that experts across the world are keeping a close eye on, but it’s not something you should expect to change the course of the pandemic overnight. Covid-19 vaccines authorized for use including Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson are highly effective at preventing severe disease and death even with the Delta variant. However, keep in mind that since they are not 100% effective, breakthrough infections will occur. In these cases, the vaccines still provide strong protection against serious illness and death and are our best defense against these emerging mutations.
The contagiousness of the newer variants is reason enough to remain careful and adhere to safety protocols including wearing masks and social distancing. The Bahamas’ National Covid-19 Vaccine Consultative Committee’s latest vaccine tracker chart show only 14.8% of the population is fully vaccinated, well below the target of 70-85% needed for herd immunity.
“The best way for everyone in The Bahamas to protect themselves from mutating Covid-19 viruses and prevent more surges in the future is to get vaccinated and follow established protocols,” says Dr. Dal-Regis.