A woman receives a vaccination against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a temporary Clalit healthcare maintenance organisation (HMO) centre, in Herzliya, Israel February 3, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
The Delta variant of Covid-19, first identified in India, has been detected in 74 countries and continues to spread rapidly amid fears that it is poised to become the dominant strain worldwide.
Outbreaks of the Delta variant have been confirmed in China, the US, Africa, Scandinavia and Pacific rim countries. Scientists report that it appears to be more transmissible, as well as to cause more serious illness.
In the US, according to the former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb, cases of the Delta variant are doubling roughly every two weeks and account for 10% of all new cases, while in the UK it accounts for more than 90% of new cases.
While health authorities around the world are collecting and sharing data on the spread of the new variant, the fear is that in countries in the developing world with less robust monitoring systems, the Delta variant may already have spread much further than has been reported.
Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University’s school of public health in the US, last week called the Delta variant “the most contagious variant we’ve seen so far”.
The World Health Organization designated Delta as a variant of interest in April and a variant of concern on 11 May. It appears to cause more severe symptoms, according to evidence seen from India and elsewhere, including stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, hearing loss and joint pain.
Speaking on CBS’s Face the Nation, Gottlieb said it was inevitable that the Delta variant would become dominant in the US.
"Look, and it’s going to continue to spread. It’s concerning.… So this is more contagious. It appears that people who get this virus have higher viral loads and they have those viral loads for longer periods of time,” he said. “Right now in the United States, it’s about 10% of infections. It’s doubling every two weeks. So it’s probably going to become the dominant strain here in the United States.”
For now, however, the US – where 43.6% of adults are fully vaccinated – is sticking to its policy of protecting against the variant through encouraging vaccination, with little pressure for renewed lockdowns or similar restrictions.
While concern is mounting in countries with well-developed health systems and vaccine programmes, most worrying is the potential impact of the Delta variant in poorer countries.
Hospitals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, have been “overwhelmed” by a rise in Covid infections. The president, Félix Tshisekedi, said the country was in the midst of a third wave driven in part by the Delta variant.
The Zimbabwean government announced at the weekend a two-week localised lockdown for Hurungwe and Kariba districts after detecting the Delta variant. The government said more than 40 cases had been recorded in the last three days.