By many metrics, the United States is doing relatively well against the pandemic coronavirus. National counts of cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all at levels not seen since the start of last year. Several states have met the goal of having 70 percent adults vaccinated with at least one dose, and many areas relax or lift health restrictions in response to suppressed transmission levels.
But those hard-fought gains were accompanied by a grim milestone on Tuesday: the nation’s death toll reached 600,000. That’s roughly the population of Milwaukee or Baltimore. And experts fear the state of the pandemic may worsen again in the United States.
The threatening variant of the B 1.617.2 coronavirus, first seen in India – now dubbed Delta by the World Health Organization – is spreading rapidly around the world, including the United States. It is believed to be even more contagious than the worrying B.1.1.7 variant first seen in UK. This variant, now dubbed Alpha, is estimated to be around 50% more transmissible than the original coronavirus that spread to Wuhan, China in early 2020. Delta is estimated to be 50 to 60% more contagious than Alpha .
In the UK, Delta variant infections started to appear at very low levels in early April and then increased rapidly. At the beginning of June, the Delta variant represented more than 60% of cases.
Earlier this year, Alpha overtook other versions of the virus to become the predominant strain in the United States. Now, experts expect Delta to take its place, just like in the UK. On Monday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially dubbed Delta a “worrying variant. “
“Right now, in the United States, [Delta accounts for] about 10 percent of infections. It doubles every two weeks, “said Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, Sunday the Confront the nation. “So that’s probably going to become the dominant strain here in the US. It doesn’t mean we’re going to see a big increase in infections, but it does mean it’s going to take over. And I think the risk really is. in the fall – that it could cause a new epidemic as the fall approaches. “
New data suggests that Delta may also cause more serious illness, in addition to spreading to more people. Early findings in Scotland suggest that Delta variant infections were associated with nearly double the risk of those infected being hospitalized compared to Alpha variant infections. The data was published Monday as correspondence in the Lancet. Experts say they will need more data to confirm this risk.
The good news in all of this is that being fully vaccinated seems to protect against Delta. At the end of May, researchers at Public Health England released data (which had not been peer reviewed) indicating that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were 88 percent effective in preventing symptomatic infection with the Delta variant. Meanwhile, according to the data, two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine were 60% effective. (In particular, a single injection of either vaccine was do not protective, offering only 33 percent effectiveness against symptomatic Delta infections. Experts have stressed the importance of not skipping the second dose.)
Data outside Scotland Monday also suggested that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were 79% effective against the Delta variant, while two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine were again 60% effective.
Also on Monday, PHE published another analysis (also not peer reviewed) which reveals that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine have been 96 percent effective against hospitalization, and two doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine were 92 percent effective against hospitalization.
“So we have the tools to control that and defeat it,” Gottlieb noted.
But experts remain concerned. The rhythm of vaccination has slowed down considerably in the United States and many states, especially in the South, are falling short of the goal of getting at least one vaccine for 70 percent of adults. Pockets of low vaccination are fueling fears from experts, including Gottlieb, that cases could rise again as Delta continues to spread.
Peter Hotez, director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, echoed this concern on Tuesday. He told CNN he was “extremely worried”About the Delta variant. He stressed that right now is the “crucial time” to get a full vaccine – which takes five to six weeks – before Delta spreads further.
At a press briefing last week, top infectious disease specialist Anthony Fauci made a similar plea, highlighting the rapid spread of the Delta variant in the UK. “We can’t let this happen in the United States, “he said. This is” such a powerful argument… for getting vaccinated. “
This story originally appeared on Ars Technica.
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