Everything We Know So Far About the COVID-19 Delta Variant, According to Experts
In the last few months, news has emerged that several variants of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes the disease COVID-19) are circulating globally. Virus variants are not an unusual occurrence. They arise through a process called “mutation,” where the virus undergoes changes to its genetic structure. As a result, the new virus variants often have characteristics that are different from the original virus. Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz about a new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the B.1.617.2 strain, officially known as the Delta variant.
The World Health Organization (WHO) classified the Delta variant as a “variant of concern” on May 10. Earlier this week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed suit and also labeled Delta a variant of concern. But what exactly does that mean? In short, the variant of concern designation is given to strains of the virus that scientists believe are more transmissible or cause more severe disease. Vaccines, treatments, and tests that detect the virus may also be less effective against a variant of concern. And now, worldwide, scientists and public health experts are sounding the alarm on the Delta variant. This new information is a lot to take in, especially as so many of us are just starting to get used to some sense of long-awaited normalcy again. So here’s everything you need to know about the Delta variant, according to the experts.
Where Did the Delta Variant Originate?
According to the CDC, the Delta variant (aka B.1.617.2) was initially detected in India in December 2020. The Delta variant is a mutation (or sub-variant) of B.1.617, the so-called "double mutant" strain.
The Delta variant was the main culprit during India’s tragic, record-breaking COVID-19 surge earlier this spring. The variant is also responsible for a new wave in cases in the United Kingdom, which is expected to delay the lifting of restrictions in the U.K. by at least four weeks.
"As these viruses mutate and develop, they look like your family tree," John Sellick, DO, an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo/SUNY, said in a recent interview. "This particular sub-variant has wreaked havoc in India." And now, it seems, it's spreading across the globe. In a recent press conference, British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said that the Delta variant is around 40% more transmissible than SARS-CoV-2, meaning it can spread faster and easier than the original strain of COVID-19.
Is the Delta Variant in the U.S.?
Yes. Currently, the Delta variant makes up about 10% of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S., though, in some states, it accounts for over 18% of sampled coronavirus cases, according to the CDC.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said in a recent interview that the Delta variant is likely to become the dominant source of new infections in the U.S. and could lead to new outbreaks in the fall. "Right now, in the United States, it's about 10% of infections. It's doubling every two weeks," Gottlieb said in the interview. "That doesn't mean that we're going to see a sharp uptick in infections, but it does mean that this is going to take over. And I think the risk is really to the fall that this could spike a new epidemic heading into the fall."
How is Delta Different from Other Variants, and Why May it Be More Dangerous?
Public health agencies, including the WHO, have classified this specific strain as a "variant of concern" because it could potentially lead to increased hospitalizations, more strain on health care resources, and, ultimately, more deaths. The Delta variant has multiple mutations that appear to give it an advantage over other strains. However, the most apparent advantage is that the mutations may make the strain more transmissible, making it the most dangerous variant yet.
One study conducted by the Public Health England (PHE) suggests that B.1.617.2 may be at least 50 percent more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) variant. As of today, Delta accounts for more than 90 percent of all new cases in the U.K., indicating it is outcompeting the Alpha strain — and now has become the dominant variant in the country.
Another recent study, conducted by the Indian government, found that Delta has become, by far, the most dominant strain in India. Additionally, the Chinese province of Guangdong has locked down areas in an effort to control a recent flare-up of cases primarily driven by the highly transmissible variant.
Delta is also potentially concerning because "it's clear that young people are at risk," according to Stanley Weiss, MD, professor of medicine at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health.
What Are the Symptoms of the Delta Variant?
Symptoms of the variant are similar to that of the original virus, just more severe in some cases. It could also be less responsive to treatments and vaccines, according to The Associated Press.
The potential symptoms include headache, sore throat, runny nose, cough, fever or chills, loss of or change in smell or taste, fatigue, muscle aches, shortness of breath, diarrhea, stomach pain, loss of appetite, vomiting, nausea, joint pain, and potential hearing loss.
Dr. Bhakti Hansoti, an associate professor of emergency medicine and international health at Johns Hopkins University, recently stated that doctors have seen an increased likelihood of hearing loss, severe stomach pains, and nausea in patients infected with the Delta variant.
Doctors in India say the prevalence of digestive issues and other symptoms (including gangrene) resulting from the Delta variant appear to be greater than those brought on by the original strain of COVID-19. However, more clinical research needs to be done to confirm the link between the virus variant and the severity of symptoms.
Related: How to Clean and Disinfect After Someone In Your Household Has Had COVID-19
Will There Be Other Coronavirus Variants?
The Delta variant offers more insight into how the SARS-CoV-2 virus continues to evolve and how that evolution is continuing to produce more concerning variants than those that came before them. Current data shows that Delta may be the most transmissible variant to yet spread in the world. And the threat of a more dangerous COVID variant also raises the question of future variants that may evolve from it. Just weeks ago, Vietnam’s health ministry announced that it had detected a variant that appears to be a hybrid of both B.1.1.7 and B.1.617.2 variants. Now, Vietnam is racing to do more testing to see how far the hybrid strain has spread and how it differs from previous variants.
According to public health experts, the best way to prevent new variants from evolving is to give the coronavirus fewer opportunities to evolve by preventing and containing outbreaks with effective precautions like face masks, handwashing, social distancing, proper ventilation, targeted disinfection, and by vaccinating people before they can be exposed to infection in the first place.
Are Disinfectants Effective Against New Coronavirus Variants?
In January 2021, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a statement saying that it expects disinfectants on List N: Disinfectants for Coronavirus (COVID-19) to kill all strains of SARS-CoV-2. This is to be expected based on the structure of viruses, which can be split into three classes: Enveloped viruses, large non-enveloped viruses, and small non-enveloped viruses.
Enveloped viruses are surrounded by a fatty layer that breaks apart easily, making them easy to kill with a disinfectant. On the other hand, non-enveloped viruses have tough outer coatings, making them more challenging to eradicate.
SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped virus containing protein “spikes” that stick through the fatty outer layer, creating its infamous crown-like structure that you’re undoubtedly tired of seeing.
A variant resulting from a mutation in an enveloped virus is still an enveloped virus with the easy to kill fatty outer layer, and therefore equally susceptible to the germ-killing power of disinfectants as the original virus strain. In short, the mutation may slightly alter the genetic make-up and characteristics of the virus (the protein spikes, for example), but it does not change the physical structure of the virus. This scientific rationale is the basis for the EPA’s determination that viruses on List N are expected to kill all strains, or variants, of SARS-CoV-2.
Our all-in-one cleaner and EPA-registered disinfectant product, Vital Oxide, is on the EPA’s List N and is also now tested and proven effective in killing SARS-CoV-2 on hard, non-porous surfaces, with a contact time of just five minutes. Vital Oxide has been used in homes, businesses, hospitals, restaurants, public transportation, and more worldwide to help combat SARS-CoV-2.
Steps to Disinfect with Vital Oxide During the Pandemic and Beyond:
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