Since the first case was identified in India in December 2020, the delta variant of the novel coronavirus has spread across the globe. Though it's hard to read news about COVID-19 without seeing the name, a lot of confusion still exists around the strain. Here's what you should know about the delta variant, including what it is, how it mutated, and how the COVID-19 vaccines stack up against it.
1. The delta variant is a mutated version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Delta, officially known as B.1.617.2, is a strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It's still the same virus that causes COVID-19, but it has mutated to pose new threats. This distinguishes it from the original strain of the virus we encountered at the beginning of the pandemic.
2. High community spread allowed the delta variant to occur.
Viruses spread by replicating, and the more people the SARS-CoV-2 virus infects, the more chances it has to mutate. Most of these mutations are inconsequential, but some of them make the virus more formidable. The delta variant has a number of concerning mutations, including ones that allow it to produce higher viral loads in patients, evade antibodies, and infiltrate cells more easily. As delta becomes the dominant strain around the world, the chances of it developing even more deadly mutations increase.
3. The delta variant is present in at least 132 countries.
As of July 27, 132 countries have reported cases of the delta mutation, according to WHO. The organization predicts that the variant will become the main COVID strain around the world in the next few months if it continues to spread at its current rate. Delta is already dominating cases in the U.S., where it accounts for more than 80 percent of all new infections.
4. The delta variant is more contagious.
The biggest threat posed by the delta variant is how easily it spreads between hosts. Research shows that delta is up to 60 percent more contagious than the previous dominant strain in the U.S., alpha. Its infectiousness may be due to its ability to produce higher viral loads in patients.
5. It's unclear if the delta variant is more severe.
Experts still aren't sure how the severity of sickness from the delta variant compares to previous strains. Though some early data suggests that people infected with delta are more likely to be hospitalized, more research needs to be done. Even if the infections caused by delta aren't more severe, the virus is still dangerous. Because it's capable of infecting more people in less time, the variant has the potential to be more deadly on a global scale.
6. Vaccines are effective against the delta variant.
Limited research shows that the approved COVID-19 vaccines may be slightly less effective at defending against the new strain than the ones they were developed for. Despite this, they still offer excellent protection, and are significantly better than having no protection at all. In addition to making it less likely that you'll get infected in the first place, the vaccines also make rare breakthrough infections less severe. More research still needs to be done into how vaccines hold up to delta as well as the need for booster shots targeted at the new strain. The current dominant variants are still susceptible to the COVID vaccines, but that may not always be the case. As long as the virus is spreading freely, it will continue to mutate, and the next variant may be better equipped to get around our defenses.