What we know (so far) about the delta variant

For a short time, many of us could see the light at the end of the tunnel. We had a vaccine. We were able to distribute it to those who wanted it, and we were seeing a decrease in cases across the commonwealth of Kentucky. However, over the course of a few short months, we’ve seen a fourth wave come back with a vengeance, this time as a variant of the original coronavirus: the delta variant.

Here are four key things you need to know about variants, the delta variant and vaccines.

1. Viruses have variants.

Viruses are not living entities, they need a living host to survive. They do that by taking control of a living host’s cell machinery and reprogram the cell to reproduce themselves. As a virus replicates, its genes undergo random “copying errors” known as mutations. Some of these mutations emerge and disappear but others persist and can be problematic by becoming more transmissible and, potentially, more lethal. One or more mutations can form a variant (or a new version of the virus).

If enough mutations happen over time, antigenic drift occurs. Antigenic drift is when genetic copying errors occur, among other changes to the virus, that lead to alterations in the virus’ surface proteins or antigens.
If the virus drifts enough, vaccines against old strains of the virus and immunity from variants may no longer work against the new, drifted virus. A person may become vulnerable to the newer, mutated virus.

According to the CDC, there are four variants of concern in the US at this time: alpha, beta, gamma and delta. Learn more about these variants.

2. The delta variant is one of the more contagious and potentially more lethal variants.

According to the CDC, the Delta variant is more than 2x as contagious as previous variants. Some data suggest the delta variant might cause more severe illness than previous variants in unvaccinated people.

3. The best way to protect yourself? Get fully vaccinated.

So far, data are showing that COVID-19 vaccines are still effective against this variant. We have also seen that some people are still getting COVID-19 even after being fully vaccinated. However, those who are fully vaccinated are experiencing symptoms of a bad cold or flu as opposed to the symptoms unvaccinated persons are experiencing when they contract the delta variant.

Those who are not vaccinated can experience worse symptoms than the original variant at the beginning of the pandemic — the alpha variant. The delta variant is even more contagious and can lead to worsening reactions.

To stop the spread of this virus as a community, we should encourage one another to get vaccinated and continue to wash out hands, practice social distancing and wear a mask when you can’t practice safe precautions. The vaccine has a 90-95% effective rate and the potential for lifelong protection.

4. The virus will die if enough people get vaccinated.

When enough people get vaccinated, the virus runs into a “dead end” or it no longer allows as much room for the virus to replicate and mutate. If this happens, the virus will die out. It is still unclear how many people need to get vaccinated in order for the virus to die out, but it’s estimated that at least 70-90% of people in the US alone will need to be vaccinated — which is at least 248 million people.

If people continue not getting vaccinated, it will leave room for the virus to mutate again and develop more variants. With each new variant, there is a chance it will become more contagious, more powerful and more resistant to the treatments and vaccines we’re currently giving our community. These variants also have the power to affect our natural antibodies’ abilities to fight against the virus itself.

If you have questions about the COVID-19 vaccine or where to get one, talk with your primary care provider or visit UofLHealth.org/Louisville-COVID-19-Vaccinations.

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Article by: Mark V. Burns, M.D.

Mark V. Burns, M.D., is an infectious disease specialist at UofL Health and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Louisville. Dr. Burns earned his medical degree from the University of Louisville School of Medicine. He then completed his residency with UofL Internal Medicine before completing his fellowship at UofL Health – UofL Hospital. He is certified with the American Board of Internal Medicine - Infectious Diseases.

All posts by Mark V. Burns, M.D.
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