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OP-ED: Tracking the Delta variant

  • Published at 03:40 am June 25th, 2021
Delta Variant Second Wave Vaccines
The Delta variant basically means that we are back to square one REUTERS

Is this the most virulent viral epidemic the world has ever seen?

Earlier this week on June 23, the American epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding tweeted: “Right on cue … #DeltaVariant has arrived in the low #Vaccination states of America and setting off sharp increases in #Covid19 cases again.” He pointed out that the new coronavirus variant had rocketed from 10% of all cases in the US to 31% at frightening speed: “A tripling in one week!”

Feigl-Ding said that “UK missed the oncoming train of #DeltaVariant until it was too late” and warned, “let’s not repeat Britain’s failure, America.”

When this particular epidemiologist tweets, people pay very close attention. That is because Feigl-Ding -- who was previously on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Chan School of Public Health -- has been proven right many times, most notably from the beginning of last year when Covid-19 had still never been detected outside China.

Back then on January 25, 2020, he tweeted: “HOLY MOTHER OF GOD -- the new coronavirus [is] thermonuclear pandemic level bad.” Then, “I really hate to be the epidemiologist who has to admit this, but we are potentially faced with … possibly an unchecked pandemic that the world has not seen since the 1918 Spanish Influenza. Let’s hope it doesn’t reach that level but we now live in the modern world with faster [planes] + [transportation] than 1918. @WHO and @CDCgov needs to declare public health emergency ASAP!”

Feigl-Ding summarized: “so what does this mean for the world??? We are now faced with the most virulent virus epidemic the world has ever seen.” 

But that was then. At this point, what could possibly be so alarming in the US, where 56% of adults are already fully vaccinated? It is the Covid-19 mutation B.1.617.2 that first surfaced in India last year, then exploded nationwide in the first half of 2021 to overwhelm all public health systems. What happened here is now playing out everywhere. The Delta variant’s nastiest, most contagious and potentially deadliest wave of infections is inexorably stalking the world.

To be sure, none of this was unexpected. Dr Feigl-Ding himself blew the whistle hard on June 8, when he warned the Delta variant was already “ravaging UK despite high vaccinations because it has immune evasion properties” and “is worrisome because study after study shows it has one of the worst antibody neutralization profiles against the current vaccines.”

That data is stark and scary. The original Covid-19 variant that swept the world was neutralized almost 80% with just one dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines, and well above 90% after both. But against the Delta variant, that protection plummets to around 30%, and two doses still leaves a huge window of vulnerability. When it comes to AstraZeneca/Oxford specifically -- the best and often only option across South Asia -- even full vaccination yields only 60% protection.

This is precisely why March, April, and May have been such horrific months in India, with the death toll estimated in the millions, far beyond state and society’s capacity to cope, or even accurately calculate. 

There’s no doubt that situation was massively bungled by the fatal convergence of misgovernance, apathy, denial, and poor choices at both state and national levels. But there’s also no doubt this new threat is fiendishly destructive and evasive: RT-PCR tests regularly fail to detect it, the symptoms vary greatly to mask its presence, and it whips at high speed between children and adults so that entire families and communities become seriously ill at the same time.

All this is awful news on multiple fronts. We now know that the only way forward out of the collective pandemic predicament is for literally everyone to be vaccinated, including children. This leaves South Asia in particularly bad shape, because we don’t even have one vaccine approved for non-adults.

It also means that masks and travel protocols including hard boundaries are here to stay, quite possibly forever. No scientist or epidemiologist wants to admit it, but it’s almost certain there’s already some Covid-19 mutation circulating that isn’t affected by any existing vaccine or treatment protocol. If we are incredibly lucky, they won’t emerge while we are still trying to cope with the Delta variant, but no one can say for sure.

Thus, while it can seem as though several lifetimes and many different paradigms have waxed and elapsed since the shocking weeks last year, when the world went abruptly into an unprecedented lockdown, the Delta variant has amply demonstrated that we are still rooted at square one. The stakes remain the same, and all the basic lessons that we learned back them continue to apply in equal measure.

You know the drill: Isolate, stay at home, mask up properly, and avoid the virus in every way because your life -- and that of our family, friends, and communities -- continues to hang on the safety of your next breath. 

Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.

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