The SARS-COV-2 virus is certainly benefiting from the power of natural selection. It’s spreading rapidly through a vulnerable population, that is us, and we’ve been half-assing our response, which simultaneously allows it to proliferate in large numbers and yet also favors variants that can overcome what barriers we do put up. What that means is that new strains will continue to pop up and take a run at our immune systems, and some of them will do better than the original strain. On an abstract, very academic level, it’s kind of cool. On a human level, it’s a disaster that threatens to get worse.
Right now, we get to deal with the Delta variant. It seems to have arisen in the giant petri dish we call India, but now it’s everywhere.
The B.1.617.2 coronavirus variant originally discovered in India last December has now become one the most — if not the most — worrisome strain of the coronavirus circulating globally. Recent research suggests it may the most transmissible variant yet and has fueled numerous waves of the pandemic around the world. B.1.617.2 has already spread to at least 62 countries, including the U.S., and undoubtedly contributed to the massive wave of cases that has inundated India in recent months. It also appears to have become the dominant strain infecting unvaccinated people in the U.K., and may be more likely to infect people who are only partially vaccinated than other strains. Below is what we know about B.1.617.2 — also known as the Delta variant.
How is B.1.617.2 different from other variants, and why may it be more dangerous?
The Delta variant has multiple mutations that appear to give it an advantage over other strains. The most important apparent advantage is that the mutations may make the strain more transmissible, which would also make it the most dangerous variant yet. One study indicated B.1.617.2 may be up to 50 percent more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 (U.K./Alpha) variant. Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist at Imperial College London and one of the chief pandemic advisers to the U.K. government, said on June 4 that the “best estimate at the moment” is that Delta is 60 percent more transmissible than Alpha, which is itself more transmissible than the original strain of the coronavirus that emerged in China in late 2019 — and that is why scientists believe it became a dominant variant globally.
Ah, yes, the terrible beauty of evolution. It works a little too well sometimes, and it’s the fast-breeding, large population size species that benefit most. I suppose a disease that’s going to hit anti-vaxxers hardest could be seen as a brutal Darwinian benefit, except remember that all those unvaccinated people are an easy reservoir for further experimentation by the virus.
A variant with higher transmissibility is a huge danger to people without immunity either from vaccination or prior infection, even if the variant is no more deadly than previous versions of the virus. Residents of countries like Taiwan or Vietnam that had almost completely kept out the pandemic, and countries like India and Nepal that had fared relatively well until recently, have fairly little immunity, and are largely unvaccinated. A more transmissible variant can burn through such an immunologically naïve population very fast.
Increased transmissibility is an exponential threat. If a virus that could previously infect three people on average can now infect four, it looks like a small increase. Yet if you start with just two infected people in both scenarios, just 10 iterations later, the former will have caused about 40,000 cases while the latter will be more than 524,000, a nearly 13-fold difference.
This is going to have further human costs. The Delta variant has tragically cropped up in Finland now. This is a global pandemic — you may think you’ve got it under control in your neighborhood, you may be getting cocky and think it’s time to party, but it’s not over yet, and the disease kills human beings.
THE OUTBREAK of the Indian coronavirus variant in Kanta-Häme Central Hospital in Hämeenlinna, Southern Finland, has resulted in nearly 100 infections and, directly or indirectly, 17 deaths.
Sally Leskinen, the chief medical officer at Kanta-Häme Hospital District, revealed yesterday in a news conference that the chain of infection started early last month with a patient who had contracted the transmissible variant from a close contact who had travelled outside Europe.
Further infections were detected in two hospital wards on 12 May, prompting the hospital to begin widespread screening of patients and staff.
“The virus had spread from the first patient through asymptomatic staff members,” said Leskinen.
A total of 57 patients and 42 staff members have been infected in the cluster, with 17 of the patients dying after being infected. Of the infected patients, 41 had received the first dose and two both doses of a coronavirus vaccine. While the infection is estimated to had a direct link to three-quarters of the deaths, it was not ruled as the primary cause of death for the remaining one-quarter due to a serious underlying illness.
One of the deceased patients had been vaccinated twice and 11 once, whereas five of them had yet to receive the first vaccine dose. The ages of the deceased ranged from 60 to 100, with the mean being 80.
Remember, people are fragile. We’ve got a disease that exploits that fragility and is expanding its power. Don’t think it’s done yet.