The Delta variant: a blow to global COVID-19 recovery?

The Delta variant of COVID-19, which was first identified in India in December 2020, is widely expected to become the dominant strain of the virus in the coming weeks and it appears set on derailing the reopening process worldwide, or at least making it as painful and costly as possible for most nations.

While the jury is still out on how deadly the Delta variant is compared to other strains, research has indicated it is about 40-60 percent more contagious than the previous most transmissible variant of the virus, the United Kingdom (UK)’s Alpha. A growing body of evidence has already linked it to various kinds of serious illnesses, including hearing loss, gangrene and severe stomach upsets, which were not among the common side effects of other variants.

Currently, Delta is believed to be behind one in every four cases of COVID-19 in the United States (US) and it has led to an uptick in infections that has used up to 90 percent of the hospital beds in Indonesia’s Jakarta and has Europe braced for a fourth wave.

Even though the available vaccines around the world are able to provide good protection against hospitalisation and symptomatic COVID-19 from the Delta strain, with AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNTech offering 92 and 96 percent protection, respectively, the dangers with the Delta variant lie in the fact that even in most developed countries, the majority of the population remains unvaccinated or, at best, half-vaccinated, leaving large swaths of the population vulnerable to infection.

The timing is also critical as businesses and tour operators have begun to gradually resume operations, due to economic pressure, across much of the world — well before most people have had a chance to access a first, much less a second dose, of any vaccine. This is particularly true in poorer nations with limited access to shots. In Africa, nine in ten nations are on track to miss a target set by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to vaccinate 10 percent of the population by September.

The Delta variant’s spread is also aided by persistently negative attitudes towards the vaccines and widespread misinformation about the virus, which have largely been poorly addressed by governments. Across much of Africa, including in Kenya and Tanzania, many do not believe the virus even exists. In April, officials in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) gave back 1.3 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine before their expiration due to low demand.

In response, officials in Côte d’Ivoire announced that they would give away free tickets to a recent soccer match between the Ivorian National team and Burkina Faso to those who receive the vaccination. While such moves may be well-intentioned, they fail to address real public fears and scepticism over the virus and the shots. Admittedly, such governments are already at a disadvantage given that public trust in their statements has been historically low due to high levels of official corruption and poverty.

But even in the developed world and in regions that lived through the 2002–2004 SARS outbreak, fears of the vaccine are still hampering efforts to reach herd immunity. Multiple incentives schemes for vaccinations emerged in Hong Kong, for example, offering the public tax breaks, free plane tickets and thousands of dollars in lotteries. In Serbia, officials gave a reward of about RSD3,000 (USD30) to those who took the full dose before 31 May. Similar initiatives are also present in the US and in Europe, but these appeals have failed to bring about a dramatic change in demand for the shots.

The bottom line is that while vaccines have given the world hope that the pandemic’s end is within sight, the Delta variant can still significantly delay it, particularly as it is still evolving and mutating, which means that practising social distancing will continue to be an imperative part of our lives for the foreseeable future.

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