A coronavirus variant first detected in India in February has now gone global, spreading to dozens of countries and raising fears that the strain will overwhelm health care systems, reverse reopening plans and even potentially undermine the rollout of vaccines.
The B.1.617.2 strain, officially known as the Delta variant, is worrying health officials across the world, including in the United States. The Delta variant now accounts for more than 6% of sequenced virus samples in the US, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While that might seem a relatively small share, the speed of its growth is worrying. A month ago, the strain accounted for just over 1% of sequenced virus samples, according to the CDC data.
Experts believe the B.1.617 variant is driving the huge wave in infections seen across India in recent weeks. The country now makes up 50% of Covid-19 cases and 30% of deaths from the virus globally, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The spread of the variant spread came at the same time as a considerable spike in case numbers in the UK in recent days, a spike that prompted the government to deploy the military in the hardest-hit areas to help run the test-and-trace program.
The WHO designated B.1.617 and its sublineages as a “variant of concern” on May 10. That classification means a variant may be more transmissible or cause more severe disease, fail to respond to treatment, evade immune response or fail to be diagnosed by standard tests.
B.1.617 was the fourth strain to be declared a “variant of concern” by the WHO; the others are B.1.1.7, which was first seen in the UK; B.1.351, first detected in South Africa; and P.1, first found in Brazil.
Here’s what you need to know.
Is it more contagious?
Experts now believe the Delta strain is likely more transmissible.
The WHO said B.1.617 showed signs of potentially being more transmissible than some other strains of the virus, but cautioned that more research was required. Although Indian officials say the variant is driving the country’s crippling second wave, the WHO has said several other contributing factors – such as mass gatherings – have likely also contributed to the spread there.
Speaking at a White House Covid-19 briefing on Tuesday, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said studies support the idea that the strain is more transmissible.
“Clearly now its transmissibility appears to be greater than the wild type,” Fauci said, adding that the 6% share the strain now has in the US is similar to a tipping point previously seen in the UK.
“This is a situation, the way it was in England where they had a B.1.1.7 dominant, and then the [B.1.] 617 took over. We cannot let that happen in the United States,” Fauci said.
Is it more deadly?
As of now, there’s no evidence that B.1.617 is causing more severe illness.
While PHE cautioned that more data is needed, its early findings showed that people infected with the variant were more likely to suffer serious illness. An analysis of 38,805 sequenced cases in England showed that people infected with the Delta variant carried 2.61 times the risk of hospitalization within 14 days compared with the Alpha variant, when variables such as age, sex, ethnicity and vaccination status were taken into consideration, the PHE said last week.
Fauci echoed the worry, saying the variant “may be associated with an increased disease severity.”
Do vaccines work against it?
There is evidence the existing Covid-19 shots are working against the Delta variant.
A team of researchers at BioNTech and the University of Texas Medical Branch reported Thursday they had found evidence the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine would protect against infection with the Delta variant and others.
They tested the blood of 20 fully vaccinated volunteers against lab-engineered versions of several virus variants and found evidence the immune system should neutralize them.
Researchers based in the UK reported last week that most people who receive two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine still would have protection against the new variant, although they said the antibodies appear to be significantly reduced.
Hancock also said the research so far suggests that “after two doses of vaccine, we are confident that you get the same protection as you did with the old variant.”
People do need to be fully vaccinated to be fully protected. The researchers at the Francis Crick Institute and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) UCLH Biomedical Research Centre also said that after one dose of the vaccine, people were less likely to develop enough of an antibody response to protect against the Delta variant, compared with the previously dominant variant.
In a news release accompanying their research, the scientists said their findings suggest that the best way to fight the new variant is “to quickly deliver second doses and provide boosters to those whose immunity may not be high enough against these new variants.”
Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said on May 6 that the variants first identified in India probably fall into the middle in terms of danger between B.1.1.7, which seems almost fully susceptible to vaccines and treatments, and B.1.351, which has been documented to infect people who recovered from infection with earlier variants of the coronavirus, and also to partly evade the protection offered by vaccines.
Which countries have detected the variant?
The variant has been identified in 44 countries, on every continent apart from Antarctica, according to the WHO.
It is spreading very fast – a month ago, WHO said it was present in just over 40 countries.
Other variants have spread across the world quickly, also - including new variants that were not more transmissible than established lineages. Researchers note that sometimes a dominant strain is simply the variety that happens to ride a wave of transmission fueled by travel and mingling.
What does it mean for global roadmaps out of lockdown?
The outbreak there has already had an impact on global vaccine supply. India is a leading maker of vaccines but when cases started to spike, its government restricted the export of Covid-19 shots.
The fast spread of the Delta variant has prompted France and several other countries to place new restrictions on travelers coming from the UK.
It has already caused worry that the UK’s government’s plan to lift the remaining coronavirus restrictions on June 21 might worsen the spread. Hancock said the government is monitoring the data closely to determine its next steps.
The outbreak in India has also had an impact on global vaccine supply. India is a leading maker of vaccines but when cases started to spike, its government restricted the export of Covid-19 shots.
And the more the virus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate and create new variants that could eventually resist current vaccines, threatening to undermine other countries’ progress in containing the pandemic.
CNN’s Maggie Fox, Niamh Kennedy, Eleanor Pickston, Kara Fox, Robert Iddiols, Virginia Langmaid and Aditi Sangal contributed to this report.