The Delta variant of the coronavirus has ravaged India, where it was first identified, burning across the subcontinent and killing 3,000 or more per day. It’s become the dominant strain in Great Britain, where the country’s reopening has been delayed by a month because of another wave of COVID-19 fueled by the variant.
According to the World Health Organization, the Delta variant is now in 74 countries, including the United States, where it now accounts for 10% of the new cases.
“I suspect it will become the dominant variant in the U.S. and here in Utah in pretty short order,” said Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare.
There is some disagreement about that. Nels Elde, an associate professor of human genetics at the University of Utah and winner of a 2020 “genius grant,” said it’s certainly possible it could become dominant in Utah, “but that prediction has been made before [with other variants] and has sort of, I would say, at least slightly fizzled.”
But there’s no disputing that the Delta variant is already here in Utah — the state health department reported 300 confirmed cases on Friday, 138 more than on Thursday.
That’s cause to be on alert, but not to be alarmed, experts say. And another reason to go get vaccinated if you haven’t already.
“The Delta variant should make us a little nervous and more cautious,” said Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician at Intermountain Healthcare. “We know that the Delta variant is more contagious than the Alpha variant, which is more contagious than viruses we had circulating in the winter. It likely leads to more severe disease, based on data in the U.K. and India.
“But it does look like if an individual has been fully vaccinated — if they’re two weeks out from the second shot of Pfizer or Moderna — that the vaccine does offer a high level of protection.”
More than 90% of the COVID cases in the United Kingdom are now the Delta variant, and it’s estimated to be 30-100% more transmissible than the Alpha variant — which was estimated to be 43-90% more transmissible than the first strains of the coronavirus.
“The U.K. is ahead of us in the epidemiology of the virus,” Stenehjem said. “And they’re now seeing a doubling of the infections that they’ve seen in the past two weeks ... driven by the Delta variant.”
And there’s still plenty of room for Delta and other variants to spread in Utah, where only about 64% of adult Utahns are vaccinated — about 41% of the state’s total population. And the rate of people getting vaccinated has slowed dramatically.
“The individual choices we make contribute to this bigger picture,” Elde said. “So, yeah, I’m a little concerned that we’re running out of steam, that people are kind of hanging in the weeds and that we are losing momentum.”
And you may get sicker. According to one study in Scotland, patients with the Delta variant are twice as likely to be hospitalized.
The good news is it may not be more likely to kill you.
“Fortunately, deaths haven’t risen all that much in the UK,” Stenehjem said, “but we’re really going to have to watch what is happening there in terms of hospitalizations.”
Stenehjem is not convinced the Delta variant will lead to crowded hospital wards in Utah.
“I don’t think we’re going to see this massive rise in hospitalizations this summer by any means, because it’s the summer months, and we have a lot of people vaccinated against COVID,” Stenehgm said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see an uptick in cases, which would probably lead to an uptick in hospitalizations, especially for those who are unvaccinated.
“But do I think we’ll see a huge surge that will fill our hospitals? Probably not.”
Vaccines may be a bit less effective against it
In clinical studies, the Pfizer vaccine was 95% effective against earlier strains of COVID-19; Moderna was 94.1% effective. Early indications are that they’re 80-90% effective against the Delta variant.
(The one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 72% effective overall, and 86% against severe illness.)
“This is the first variant that we’re seeing that potentially has some component of resistance to the vaccine,” Stenehjem said. But it’s only “slightly resistant.”
And that’s nothing to panic about, Elde said, pointing out that annual flu vaccines are often just 50-60% effective.
“And yet if enough people get vaccinated, that still puts a big dent in the ability of flu virus to spread,” he said. “It is true, 90 versus 80 means that we need more folks to get vaccinated if we want to move through this more quickly. But if we had seen 70% efficacy when these [Moderna and Pfizer vaccines] came out, that would’ve been considered a breakthrough success. And 80% — that is a massively effective tool. … We know what to do — we just need to do it.”
But the “biggest lesson from the variants” is that we may not have an unlimited amount of time to get people vaccinated.
“It’s all probabilities, but the more the virus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate,” Elde said. “And the more chances there will be an Omega variant, or whatever Greek letter you pick, and that that one could potentially render the vaccines less useful. That’s a very low probability, but it could happen.”
It’s another sign the pandemic isn’t over
Gov. Spencer Cox continues to urge Utahns to get vaccinated. The Utah Department of Health issued another plea, tied to the arrival of the Delta variant. Medical professionals are warning that, while life is beginning to return to normal, the pandemic isn’t over.
“I mean, this virus keeps throwing things at us, right?” Stenehjem said. “We’ve been in this now for well over 15 months, and we’re accustomed to new data and new curveballs. And I think it’s just more important for us to realize that we’re not through with COVID. It may feel like it in our communities, but we’re not done with COVID.”
He said it’s important for everyone — especially the unvaccinated — to “remain cautious” about going to stores and big indoor gatherings, “particularly because of the Delta variant.”
“The really good news,” Elde said, " is that we already have scientific evidence that the vaccines remain really effective with the Delta variant. And so the vaccinated life is the safest life, currently. There should be some comfort in that.”