For years, we have labeled disease outbreaks by their geographic origins. Spanish influenza. Zika. The Middle East Respiratory syndrome. The “Wuhan Virus”, according to former President Donald Trump. Categorizing diseases by their geographic origins can stigmatize ethnicities and complicate procedures in countries where new strains or diseases are identified, simply fearing the repercussions of naming a disease after their own country. As for the accuracy of such classifications, most researchers disagree that the 1918 influenza pandemic originated in Spain; in fact, it is widely believed that the name was assigned due to political motivations.
Fortunately, in late May, the World Health Organization formally recognized the issue of such pathogenic nomenclature. Under its new guidelines, the WHO proposed naming COVID-19 variants using the Greek alphabet. Although alphanumeric nomenclature is more likely to be used in scientific journals, the use of the Greek alphabet is expected to make it easier for the average person to understand and refer to variants. This is, of course, a promising shift from referring to COVID-19 variants based on their geographical origin. The B.1.1.7 variant (initially identified in Britain) will be known as Alpha, the B.1.351 variant (initially identified in South Africa) will be known as Beta, the P.1 variant (initially identified in Brazil) will be Gamma, and the B.1.671.2 variant (initially identified in India) will be Delta. Should the number of variants exceed the total of twenty-four available Greek letters, a new system will be announced thereafter.
Of monumental substance is the current concern over the most recent of the variants, the Delta variant. In late April and early May, among the most striking images on television and media around the world were those that featured the disastrous effects of a fresh COVID-19 wave in India. As pandemic fatigue grew in the country, and after multiple lockdowns on national and provincial levels, restrictions were being slowly lifted and citizens began to slowly let their guard down. The Delta variant took the country by storm. Hospitals were overwhelmed, people begged for oxygen on the streets in makeshift stretchers, and thousands of funeral pyres burned daily.
SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19. Simply put, such viruses can mutate, or change their genetic composition, and certain mutations may prove evolutionarily advantageous to it. Variants with certain genetic markers have been readily associated with changes in receptor binding, which allow the virus to take over other cells in an easier manner. The Delta variant boasts several mutations that give it a significant advantage over other strains. Among these advantages is a predisposition that makes the strain more transmissible. It is also believed to be more resistant to health controls. UK researchers believe the Delta variant may double a person’s risk of hospitalization when compared to the Alpha variant.
And it is certainly proliferating expeditiously. The Delta variant has become the prominent strain in the UK, which is beginning to see what may be a fresh wave of cases. According to Dr. Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, the Delta variant already comprises between six and ten percent of United States COVID-19 cases. He expects it to become the dominant strain in the United States by August of 2021.
As restrictions ease across the country and many parts of the world, individuals are once again making plans to travel. But experts warn of the rise of this variant. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has designated the Delta variant as a “variant of concern”. President Biden took to Twitter to warn the American public. “Folks, the Delta variant — a highly infectious COVID-19 strain — is spreading rapidly among young people between 12 and 20 years old in the U.K. If you’re young and haven’t gotten your shot yet, it really is time. It’s the best way to protect yourself and those you love”, he wrote. This comes on the heel of a higher vaccination rate among older adults than younger adults, who have exhibited hesitancy in receiving the vaccine.
So what can you do? Dr. Jha adds that fully vaccinated individuals should not be particularly inclined to worry about this variant, as they have been shown to do quite well when exposed to it. Against the Delta variant, AstraZeneca has reported its vaccine to have 92% efficiency against hospitalization or death and Pfizer/BioNTech has reported 96% efficiency against hospitalization or death. Even if you get vaccinated, it is important to note that for those with weakened immune systems (such as those with an autoimmune condition, Bell’s palsy, Guillain-Barre syndrome, etc.) there is no data currently available about the safety or efficiency of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. That is, you may not be fully protected even if you are fully vaccinated. These individuals are recommended to consult a healthcare professional and may need to continue taking precautions like hand-washing, masking, and social distancing. After taking a vaccine, you may also elect to receive a Spike Protein Antibody Test, a blood test that may potentially identify antibodies created by your body in response to vaccination against COVID-19 (or through a prior COVID-19 infection).
Stay safe this summer and consult a healthcare professional if you have further questions about whether the vaccine is right for you.