A new Delta descendant is rising in the U.K. Here's what to know
Published Wednesday, October 20, 2021 11:37AM EDT Last Updated Wednesday, October 20, 2021 11:37AM EDT
British and international authorities are closely monitoring a subtype of the Delta variant that is causing a growing number of infections in the United Kingdom.
This descendant of the Delta variant, known as AY.4.2, accounted for an estimated 6% of cases in the week of September 27 -- the last week with complete sequencing data -- and is "on an increasing trajectory," a report by the UK Health Security Agency said.
Little is known about AY.4.2. Some experts have suggested it could be slightly more transmissible than the original Delta variant, though that has not yet been confirmed. While it accounts for a growing number of infections, it is not yet classified in the U.K. as a "variant of concern." It currently remains rare beyond Britain, with a small number of cases being recorded in Denmark and the U.S., expert Francois Balloux told the Science Media Center (SMC) on Tuesday.
"As AY.4.2 is still at fairly low frequency, a 10% increase its transmissibility could have caused only a small number of additional cases. As such it hasn't been driving the recent increase in case numbers in the U.K.," Balloux, Professor of Computational Systems Biology and Director at the UCL Genetics Institute, told the SMC.
While new variants have repeatedly overtaken one another to become the dominant strain globally in the past year, experts say it is too soon to know whether AY.4.2 will become significant. In the U.K., "Delta very rapidly in a matter of weeks" outpaced the Alpha variant by the summer, Deepti Gurdasani, a senior epidemiology lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, told CNN. "That's not what we're seeing here, we're seeing sort of a slow increase in proportion that suggests that it's not hugely more transmissible, it might be slightly more transmissible.
Balloux agreed, telling SMC that "this [is] not a situation comparable to the emergence of Alpha and Delta that were far more transmissible (50% or more) than any strain in circulation at the time. Here we are dealing with a potential small increase in transmissibility that would not have a comparable impact on the pandemic."
AY.4.2 has caught the attention of public health experts across the pond. In a series of tweets Sunday, former U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb called for "urgent research" into this Delta offshoot and said it was a "reminder that we need robust systems to identify, characterize new variants."
The emergence of AY.4.2 in Britain, however, points to what scientists have warned throughout the pandemic: soaring transmission can create new variants. The U.K. has had the highest rate of daily COVID-19 cases and deaths per million people in Western Europe since most pandemic restrictions were dropped in the summer. On Tuesday, it reported 223 COVID-19 deaths, the highest daily figure since early March, and health leaders are urging the government to reintroduce measures such as mask mandates in enclosed spaces to help ease the pressure on the health system.
The "whole problem with this approach to living with the virus and allowing between 30,000 to 50,000 cases a day -- which has been the UK's case rate since [the summer] -- is the [virus's] evolution will continue ... we need to suppress cases and suppress the virus," Gurdasani said.
YOU ASKED. WE ANSWERED.
Q: When vaccinated people die from COVID-19, how do you explain that vaccines are still worth taking?
A: We need to start with science and what the research shows, according to CNN Medical Analyst Dr. Leana Wen. The COVID-19 vaccines are extraordinarily effective in preventing illness and especially severe disease, she said.
The most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that they reduce the likelihood of testing positive for COVID-19 by six-fold and the likelihood of death by 11-fold, she added.
"That means that if you are vaccinated, you are six times less likely to get COVID-19 than someone who's unvaccinated. And you are 11 times less likely to die from COVID-19 compared to an unvaccinated person. That's really excellent," she said.
"However, the COVID-19 vaccines do not protect you 100%. No vaccine does, just likely virtually no medical treatment is 100% effective. That doesn't mean the vaccine doesn't work, or that you shouldn't take it."
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