WASHINGTON – Just three weeks ago, Britain celebrated the success of its vaccination campaign by lifting many restrictions on the coronavirus. “Goodbye, lock,”
Public health officials in the United States are battling the possibility of a similar regression happening here, as in the United Kingdom, putting the end of the pandemic that many had predicted for this summer.
The powerful new variant, known as Delta or B.1.617, appeared in India during the recent influx of coronavirus in that country. According to the British Minister of Health Matt Hancock, it is about 40 percent more transmitted than the original strain or wild type, which first appeared in 2019. While several variants of the coronavirus have emerged since the beginning of the pandemic, epidemiologists fear that the mutation can create a strain that avoids vaccines.
Dr. Eric Topol, founder of the Scripps Research Translation Institute, called the Delta variant “the worst we’ve ever seen.”
The Delta variant accounts for only about 6 percent of cases in the United States, according to genomic sequencing studies. But that could change quickly, warned Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s top public health adviser, during a briefing Tuesday at the White House pandemic response team.
“We cannot allow this to happen in the United States,” Fauzi said, describing the UK scenario as a “powerful argument” for vaccination. Biden has set a goal of vaccinating 70 percent of American adults by the weekend of July 4. Although the country has already exceeded 300 million doses of coronavirus vaccine, efforts have recently slowed.
The emergence of the Delta variant poses a new challenge because, as University of Edinburgh immunologist Eleanor Riley told the Financial Times, vaccines provide “slightly less protection against Delta variant infection.” Even fully vaccinated people appear to develop fewer neutralizing antibodies against the Delta strain than with other variants.
During Tuesday’s briefing, Fauci said the new option could be “associated with an increased severity of the disease” compared to the wild-type coronavirus.
People who received only their first dose of the two-dose vaccines from Pfizer and AstraZeneca appear to be particularly vulnerable to the Delta variant, Fauci said on Tuesday. (The AstraZeneca vaccine is widely used in Europe but not in the United States; the Moderna vaccine, by contrast, is popular in the United States but not in the United Kingdom.) While both vaccines were about 50% effective against the original SARS strain. -CoV-2 three weeks after the first dose, they were only 33 percent effective against the Delta strain.
Two weeks after the second dose, their effectiveness jumped to 88% for Pfizer and 60% for AstraZeneca, which is a slight reduction in effectiveness compared to the original coronavirus strain.
According to government figures, seventy-seven per cent of the British population over the age of 18, or 40 million people, fired just one shot; 28 million had a second shot, representing 54 percent of the population.
The United States is in a similar position, having fully vaccinated 53 percent of its adult population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 64 percent are partially vaccinated.
During a briefing on Tuesday, Fauci noted that the peak transmission of the virus is in the age group of 12 to 20 years in the United Kingdom. Adolescents became eligible for the vaccine last month in the United States. In the UK, however, vaccination for younger people has been significantly slower.
England, home to 56.3 million of the UK’s 66.8 million people, started vaccinating 25- to 29-year-olds this week alone.
Asked what the Biden administration was doing to blunt the effects of the Delta strain, a White House official cited a series of incentives and information efforts announced by the president last week.
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