Covid-19 Variant First Found in India Is Quickly Spreading Across Globe

The highly transmissible Covid-19 variant that first emerged in India is rapidly spreading around the world, health authorities say, intensifying the race to increase global vaccinations.

The B.1.617.2 variant, now dubbed the Delta variant, is in at least 60 countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., and British scientists recently estimated that it might be 40% to 50% more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 variant, or Alpha, which in turn is more transmissible than the original virus and quickly spread across the globe.

“Given that level of transmissibility, I would anticipate that it would actually spread around the world,”

Sharon Peacock,

executive director and chair of the Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium, said at The Wall Street Journal’s Tech Health Event on Wednesday.

In the U.K., the Delta variant is rapidly displacing the Alpha variant, and health officials believe that it is contributing to an uptick in Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations in the country, though it is starting from a low baseline. Previously, around 98% of cases in the U.K. were due to the Alpha variant, but the Delta variant has started to take over after being introduced into the country in March and now constitutes about 75% of cases, Dr. Peacock said. Covid-19 Genomics UK is a consortium of public-health and academic organizations that collects, sequences and analyzes genomes from Covid-19 tests in the U.K. to guide pandemic response efforts.

“We’re seeing a major shift in the cause of infection in the U.K., and that change has happened relatively rapidly over a period of a few weeks, and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to really stop,” said Dr. Peacock, who is also a professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge.

The variant is also becoming dominant in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,

John Nkengasong,

director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the WSJ conference. Dr. Nkengasong said that the risk from the variant is significant and that the continued emergence of new variants speaks to the need to strengthen genomic sequencing across the globe.

The lack of knowledge about Covid-19 and problems with vaccine distribution could lead to more and stronger variants in the future , the director of CDC Africa and the UK Chair of Covid-19 Genomics tell the WSJ’s Betsy McKay.

Anthony Fauci,

the U.S.’s top infectious-disease physician, said Tuesday that the Delta variant currently accounts for more than 6% of sequenced Covid-19 cases in the U.S. The Alpha variant is still dominant in the country.

“We cannot let that happen in the United States,” Dr. Fauci said of the situation in the U.K., during a White House media briefing. He urged people to get vaccinated if they haven’t been already and to make sure that they get their second dose.

The variant might also be associated with increased risk for severe disease and hospitalization, health authorities say, but that connection is less certain.

The currently available vaccines work against the Delta variant, early data suggests, but they seem to be somewhat less effective, especially after just one dose. According to data from Public Health England, both the

AstraZeneca

and

Pfizer

-BioNTech vaccines were about 33% effective against symptomatic Covid-19 caused by the Delta variant after one dose, compared with being about 50% effective against the Alpha variant.

After two doses, however, the Pfizer vaccine efficacy against the Delta variant increased to 88%, and the AstraZeneca vaccine was about 60% effective.

Both Drs. Peacock and Nkengasong expressed concern that, if the virus is allowed to continue to spread, new variants could emerge in the next few months that the current vaccines may be even less effective against.

“I think that that’s one step in a series of incremental steps, or potentially there could be one large step, towards a variant that is more resistant to vaccination,” Dr. Peacock said. “The way that we get on top of the emergence of variants is to stop transmission and vaccinate the world.”

Write to Brianna Abbott at [email protected]

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