The COVID-19 Delta Variant and Its Risk to Vaccine Efficiency

The recent surge of over 40,000 new COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom has led the public to begin raising several questions, ranging from vaccine efficacy to the risks associated with unlocking the nation. This rise in the UK’s infection rate has been majorly driven by Covid-19’s latest transformation, the Delta variant. What is it that makes this version of the virus different from its previous manifestations?

Using data collected from the health science company Zoe, the most commonly reported symptoms associated with the Delta variant includes headaches, sore throats, and runny noses, which may be easily confused with the common cold or hay fever. This may present a problem, as similarities with other conditions lead to persons brushing aside their symptoms and unknowingly furthering the spread of the virus. It should be noted, however, that the NHS website still lists a dry, continuous cough, fever, and loss of taste and/or smell as primary symptoms.

The troublesome nature of the variant does not end there. Compared to the previous Alpha variant which first emerged in Kent, mutations in the Delta variant have led to a higher rate of viral transmissibility, meaning the ability of the virus to spread from one person to another has gotten better. For much of the country, the current rise in cases has been relatively gradual in comparison to previous national outbreaks. This has been largely credited to the UK’s vaccination rollout and implemented coronavirus restrictions. However, this cannot be said for the North-East of England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland, which have been undergoing what appears to be a “third-wave”, with a troubling increase in hospitalisations and rapid doubling of cases within a relatively short period. With lockdown measures in England set to be reversed on 19th July, many healthcare officials in the affected areas are calling on their government to postpone the changes to restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

In addition to the concern of more deaths and hospitalisations of seriously ill patients, many are worried the easing of restrictions could lead to the detriment of what has been an effective vaccination programme. The Delta variant, like pre-existing forms of the Covid-19 virus such as the Alpha or Beta (South Africa) variant, emerged due to genetic mutations, a random event which increasingly occurs as the pathogen jumps from person to person. These mutations cause small changes in the virus’ spike protein, leading it to bind more easily to target cells and cause infection. Could mutations in the Delta variant lead to stronger vaccine resistance?

Luckily, this does not seem to be the case. Public Health England has published data on the effectiveness of the vaccines on this specific variant, with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine being 96% effective against hospitalisation after full two doses, and the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine showing 92% efficacy. Additionally, research has shown that although the vaccines may be slightly less effective in preventing infection with the Delta variant, full dosage continues to prevent serious illness.

That answers that question but poses another. What if the virus mutates to become even more resistant to existing treatments?

Since Delta was first detected in the UK, there have been 11 new variants investigated by Public Health England. Although not accounting for a large portion of current cases, research is constantly being done to find out how effective vaccines will remain for potential new mutations of the virus. The possibility of booster jabs being offered to the most clinically vulnerable is also being considered to maintain the blanket of protection offered by the first two doses. Hopefully, these pre-emptive measures will be effective in keeping the virus at bay.

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Mariam Jallow

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July 2021
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