A new coronavirus variant dubbed “Delta Plus” has made headlines around the globe, causing cause for concern as it could potentially be more transmissible, and whether it could beat pre-existing immunity better than earlier variants remains to be seen. The original “Delta” variant dominated headlines prior to the discovery of the “Delta Plus” variant, having been discovered in India where it provoked an extreme surge in Covid-19 cases before spreading around the world.
What is Delta Plus?
The Delta Plus variant was first reported in a Public Health England bulleting on June 11. It is a sub-lineage of the Delta variant first detected in India and has acquired the spike protein mutation called K417N which is also found in the Beta variant first identified in South Africa.
“It is the Beta’s K417N mutation that is believed to help the virus dodge neutralizing antibodies – a viral part of our immune system’s defenses,” as reported by Sally Cutler, a microbiologist from the University of East London. “This means it can make vaccines and antibody drugs less effective and increase the risk of reinfection.” Shahid Jameel, a top Indian virologist, said the K417N was known to reduce the effectiveness of a cocktail of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies used to treat Covid-19.
Delta Plus cases are increasing at an alarming rate, having been detected in around 80 countries which include the US, UK, Portugal, Switzerland, Japan, Nepal, Poland, China, and Russia so far. Approximately 40 cases of the variant have been observed in the states of Maharashtra, Kerala, and Madhya Pradesh, in India, with “no significant increase in prevalence”, whilst the UK detected its first 5 cases on April 26th from individuals who had traveled from or transited through, Nepal and Turkey. However, no deaths were reported among the UK and the Indian cases.
Should we worry?
Studies are currently ongoing in India and globally to test the effectiveness of present vaccines against this mutation. The World Health Organization (WHO) is tracking this variant as part of the Delta variant, as they are doing for other “Variants of Concern” with additional mutations.
While the vaccines in use do seem to be effective against the original Delta variant, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the U.S. said that the Delta Plus variant may likely become the dominant source of new infections in the U.S. and could lead to new outbreaks in the fall, with unvaccinated Americans being most at risk.
Indian epidemiologist Dr. Lalit Kant, the former head of the Indian Council of Medical Research, reported that experts still need to “correlate the variant’s genomic data with clinical-epidemiological information” to determine the threat it poses as current data is insufficient to make a conclusion.
While the Indian government’s decision to label the Delta Plus a Variant of Concern may seem premature to many experts, it likely stems from the fact that the original Delta variant was believed to have fuelled the second wave of Covid-19 infections in India in April to May, which saw up to 400,000 people infected in the country, and for a while, it claimed about 4,000 lives per day. The country is still reporting more than 50,000 cases and 1,000 deaths daily as it comes down from the second wave, and the real figures could be much higher given the relatively low rate of testing and confirmation of Covid-linked deaths.
The fear is that the spread of Delta Plus, or any other new variants, could make things worse, and fast. Many opined that the new variant may trigger a third wave in India, it has not been corroborated yet by other experts. The way forward is to watch for its potential presence in every country and make an appropriate public health response. Dr. Jeremy Kamil, a virologist at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center said the government “would rather over-react now than seem flat-footed later, as was the case with the Delta variant.”