There is a lot in the news about the Delta variant of COVID-19 that is now spreading across the United States, threatening to move us back to a time of lockdown, universal masking and social distancing. With all this buzz, I wanted to offer my friends and neighbors some helpful background information. Namely: What is this Delta variant and how did it occur?
As a virus multiplies and grows in a host, it replicates billions of times before being released to infect the next susceptible person. During replication, errors in copying the virus’s genetic material occur randomly. Most of these errors are insignificant and vanish. But some of these errors can change the structure and function of the virus so as to give it an advantage in establishing an infection, avoiding the immune system, causing more severe disease, increasing resistance to available therapeutics, or evading detection by available diagnostics. Viruses that have such changes and persist are called “variants.”
Each time the virus infects a person, especially someone who has not been vaccinated, it has won the opportunity to recreate itself as a stronger and more deadly pathogen. This is how we ended up with the Delta variant, and this is why there is concern that an even more deadly variant of COVID-19 could emerge as the pandemic continues.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization classify COVID-19 variants into three groups, each of which poses a greater potential threat than the prior: variants of interest, variants of concern, and variants of high consequence. These groups are listed in order of seriousness based on the threat they present to our current understanding and control of the pandemic. I think of the differences between these groups in this way: VOIs have the potential to change the rules of engagement in our battle with the virus; VOCs have already changed the rules of engagement; and VOHCs have already thrown away the proverbial rule book entirely.
Fortunately, there have been no variants of high consequence identified yet. But several variants of concern have been identified, including the Delta variant. The Delta variant has been shown to be more infectious and possibly cause more severe disease than the earlier versions of COVID we saw earlier this year. The Delta variant is now the dominant virus circulating in the U.S. and many other areas in the world, threatening to take back the hard-won gains we have made in this ongoing battle with COVID.
I started this year with hope — the availability of safe and effective vaccines are the road back to normality. I am still hopeful. The vaccines we have are very safe and continue to be effective in preventing serious disease and illness from COVID, including the Delta variant, but only if used. My recommendation to you, as it is to my family and friends, is to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Charles Hyman, M.D., is an infectious diseases expert and practicing physician at Bassett Healthcare Network.