What to Know about the Fast-Spreading Delta Variant
A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.
In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.
So, how worried should you be about the Delta variant? We asked experts some common questions about Delta.
What is a variant?
To understand Delta, it's helpful to first understand what a variant is. When a virus infects a person, it gets into your cells and makes a copy of its genome so it can replicate and spread throughout your body.
In the process of making new copies of itself, the virus can make a mistake in its genetic code. Because viruses are replicating all the time, these mistakes — also called mutations — happen pretty often. A new variant emerges when a virus acquires one or more new mutations and starts spreading within a population.
There are thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, but most of them don't substantially change the way the virus behaves. The variants that scientists are most interested in are known as variants of concern. These are versions of the virus with mutations that allow the virus to spread more easily, evade vaccines, or cause more severe disease.
"The vast majority of the mutations that have accumulated in SARS-CoV-2 don't change the biology as far as we're concerned," said Jennifer Surtees, a biochemist at the University of Buffalo who's studying the coronavirus. "But there have been a handful of key mutations and combinations of mutations that have led to what we're now calling variants of concern."
One of those variants of concern is Delta, which is now driving many new COVID-19 infections.
Why is the Delta variant so concerning?
"The reason why the Delta variant is concerning is because it's causing an increase in transmission," said Alba Grifoni, an infectious disease researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "The virus is spreading faster and people — particularly those who are not vaccinated yet — are more prone to exposure."
The Delta variant has a few key mutations that make it better at attaching to our cells and evading the neutralizing antibodies in our immune system. These mutations have changed the virus enough to make it more than twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan and about 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
These mutations were previously seen in other variants on their own, but it's their combination that makes Delta so much more infectious.
Do vaccines work against the Delta variant?
The good news is, the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer still work against the Delta variant. They remain more than 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death due to Delta. While they're slightly less protective against disease symptoms, they're still very effective at preventing severe illness caused by the Delta variant.
"They're not as good as they were against the prior strains, but they're holding up pretty well," said Eric Topol, a physician and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, during a July 19 briefing for journalists.
Because Delta is better at evading our immune systems, it's likely causing more breakthrough infections — COVID-19 cases in people who are vaccinated. However, breakthrough infections were expected before the Delta variant became widespread. No vaccine is 100% effective, so breakthrough infections can happen with other vaccines as well. Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are still working as expected, even if breakthrough infections occur. The majority of these infections are asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms.
Should vaccinated people worry about the Delta variant?
Vaccines train our immune systems to protect us against infection. They do this by spurring the production of antibodies, which stick around in our bodies to help fight off a particular pathogen in case we ever come into contact with it.
But even if the new Delta variant slips past our neutralizing antibodies, there's another component of our immune system that can help overtake the virus: T cells. Studies are showing that the COVID-19 vaccines also galvanize T cells, which help limit disease severity in people who have been vaccinated.
"While antibodies block the virus and prevent the virus from infecting cells, T cells are able to attack cells that have already been infected," Grifoni said. In other words, T cells can prevent the infection from spreading to more places in the body. A study published July 1 by Grifoni and her colleagues found that T cells were still able to recognize mutated forms of the virus — further evidence that our current vaccines are effective against Delta.
Can fully vaccinated people spread the Delta variant?
Previously, scientists believed it was unlikely for fully vaccinated individuals with asymptomatic infections to spread Covid-19. But the Delta variant causes the virus to make so many more copies of itself inside the body, and high viral loads have been found in the respiratory tracts of people who are fully vaccinated. This suggests that vaccinated people may be able to spread the Delta variant to some degree.
If you have COVID-19 symptoms, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should get tested and isolate from friends and family because you could spread the virus.
What risk does Delta pose to unvaccinated people?
The Delta variant is behind a surge in cases in communities with low vaccination rates, and unvaccinated Americans currently account for 97% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, according to Walensky. The best thing you can do right now to prevent yourself from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in this week's "Making Sense of Science" podcast that it's especially important to get all required doses of the vaccine in order to have the best protection against the Delta variant. "Even if it's been more than the allotted time that you were told to come back and get the second, there's no time like the present," she said.
With more than 3.6 billion COVID-19 doses administered globally, the vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe. Serious adverse effects are rare, although scientists continue to monitor for them.
Being vaccinated also helps prevent the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Viruses need to infect people in order to replicate, and variants emerge because the virus continues to infect more people. More infections create more opportunities for the virus to acquire new mutations.
Surtees and others worry about a scenario in which a new variant emerges that's even more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. "This is our window of opportunity to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible and get people protected so that so that the virus doesn't evolve to be even better at infecting people," she said.
Does Delta cause more severe disease?
While hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing again, it's not yet clear whether Delta causes more severe illness than previous strains.
How can we protect unvaccinated children from the Delta variant?
With children 12 and under not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, kids are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant. One way to protect unvaccinated children is for parents and other close family members to get vaccinated.
It's also a good idea to keep masks handy when going out in public places. Due to risk Delta poses, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines July 19 recommending that all staff and students over age 2 wear face masks in school this fall, even if they have been vaccinated.
Parents should also avoid taking their unvaccinated children to crowded, indoor locations and make sure their kids are practicing good hand-washing hygiene. For children younger than 2, limit visits with friends and family members who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown and keep up social distancing practices while in public.
While there's no evidence yet that Delta increases disease severity in children, parents should be mindful that in some rare cases, kids can get a severe form of the disease.
"We're seeing more children getting sick and we're seeing some of them get very sick," Surtees said. "Those children can then pass on the virus to other individuals, including people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated."
The naked mole rat won’t win any beauty contests, but it could possibly win in the talent category. Its superpower: fighting the aging process to live several times longer than other animals its size, in a state of youthful vigor.
It’s believed that naked mole rats experience all the normal processes of wear and tear over their lifespan, but that they’re exceptionally good at repairing the damage from oxygen free radicals and the DNA errors that accumulate over time. Even though they possess genes that make them vulnerable to cancer, they rarely develop the disease, or any other age-related disease, for that matter. Naked mole rats are known to live for over 40 years without any signs of aging, whereas mice live on average about two years and are highly prone to cancer.
Now, these remarkable animals may be able to share their superpower with other species. In August, a study provided what may be the first proof-of-principle that genetic material transferred from one species can increase both longevity and healthspan in a recipient animal.
There are several theories to explain the naked mole rat’s longevity, but the one explored in the study, published in Nature, is based on the abundance of large-molecule high-molecular mass hyaluronic acid (HMM-HA).
A small molecule version of hyaluronic acid is commonly added to skin moisturizers and cosmetics that are marketed as ways to keep skin youthful, but this version, just applied to the skin, won’t have a dramatic anti-aging effect. The naked mole rat has an abundance of the much-larger molecule, HMM-HA, in the chemical-rich solution between cells throughout its body. But does the HMM-HA actually govern the extraordinary longevity and healthspan of the naked mole rat?
To answer this question, Dr. Vera Gorbunova, a professor of biology and oncology at the University of Rochester, and her team created a mouse model containing the naked mole rat gene hyaluronic acid synthase 2, or nmrHas2. It turned out that the mice receiving this gene during their early developmental stage also expressed HMM-HA.
The researchers found that the effects of the HMM-HA molecule in the mice were marked and diverse, exceeding the expectations of the study’s co-authors. High-molecular mass hyaluronic acid was more abundant in kidneys, muscles and other organs of the Has2 mice compared to control mice.
In addition, the altered mice had a much lower incidence of cancer. Seventy percent of the control mice eventually developed cancer, compared to only 57 percent of the altered mice, even after several techniques were used to induce the disease. The biggest difference occurred in the oldest mice, where the cancer incidence for the Has2 mice and the controls was 47 percent and 83 percent, respectively.
With regard to longevity, Has2 males increased their lifespan by more than 16 percent and the females added 9 percent. “Somehow the effect is much more pronounced in male mice, and we don’t have a perfect answer as to why,” says Dr. Gorbunova. Another improvement was in the healthspan of the altered mice: the number of years they spent in a state of relative youth. There’s a frailty index for mice, which includes body weight, mobility, grip strength, vision and hearing, in addition to overall conditions such as the health of the coat and body temperature. The Has2 mice scored lower in frailty than the controls by all measures. They also performed better in tests of locomotion and coordination, and in bone density.
Gorbunova’s results show that a gene artificially transferred from one species can have a beneficial effect on another species for longevity, something that had never been demonstrated before. This finding is “quite spectacular,” said Steven Austad, a biologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who was not involved in the study.
Just as in lifespan, the effects in various organs and systems varied between the sexes, a common occurrence in longevity research, according to Austad, who authored the book Methuselah’s Zoo and specializes in the biological differences between species. “We have ten drugs that we can give to mice to make them live longer,” he says, “and all of them work better in one sex than in the other.” This suggests that more attention needs to be paid to the different effects of anti-aging strategies between the sexes, as well as gender differences in healthspan.
According to the study authors, the HMM-HA molecule delivered these benefits by reducing inflammation and senescence (cell dysfunction and death). The molecule also caused a variety of other benefits, including an upregulation of genes involved in the function of mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cells. These mechanisms are implicated in the aging process, and in human disease. In humans, virtually all noncommunicable diseases entail an acceleration of the aging process.
So, would the gene that creates HMM-HA have similar benefits for longevity in humans? “We think about these questions a lot,” Gorbunova says. “It’s been done by injections in certain patients, but it has a local effect in the treatment of organs affected by disease,” which could offer some benefits, she added.
“Mice are very short-lived and cancer-prone, and the effects are small,” says Steven Austad, a biologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “But they did live longer and stay healthy longer, which is remarkable.”
As for a gene therapy to introduce the nmrHas2 gene into humans to obtain a global result, she’s skeptical because of the complexity involved. Gorbunova notes that there are potential dangers in introducing an animal gene into humans, such as immune responses or allergic reactions.
Austad is equally cautious about a gene therapy. “What this study says is that you can take something a species does well and transfer at least some of that into a new species. It opens up the way, but you may need to transfer six or eight or ten genes into a human” to get the large effect desired. Humans are much more complex and contain many more genes than mice, and all systems in a biological organism are intricately connected. One naked mole rat gene may not make a big difference when it interacts with human genes, metabolism and physiology.
Still, Austad thinks the possibilities are tantalizing. “Mice are very short-lived and cancer-prone, and the effects are small,” he says. “But they did live longer and stay healthy longer, which is remarkable.”
As for further research, says Austad, “The first place to look is the skin” to see if the nmrHas2 gene and the HMM-HA it produces can reduce the chance of cancer. Austad added that it would be straightforward to use the gene to try to prevent cancer in skin cells in a dish to see if it prevents cancer. It would not be hard to do. “We don’t know of any downsides to hyaluronic acid in skin, because it’s already used in skin products, and you could look at this fairly quickly.”
“Aging mechanisms evolved over a long time,” says Gorbunova, “so in aging there are multiple mechanisms working together that affect each other.” All of these processes could play a part and almost certainly differ from one species to the next.
“HMM-HA molecules are large, but we’re now looking for a small-molecule drug that would slow it’s breakdown,” she says. “And we’re looking for inhibitors, now being tested in mice, that would hinder the breakdown of hyaluronic acid.” Gorbunova has found a natural, plant-based product that acts as an inhibitor and could potentially be taken as a supplement. Ultimately, though, she thinks that drug development will be the safest and most effective approach to delivering HMM-HA for anti-aging.
In recent years, researchers of Alzheimer’s have made progress in figuring out the complex factors that lead to the disease. Yet, the root cause, or causes, of Alzheimer’s are still pretty much a mystery.
In fact, many people get Alzheimer’s even though they lack the gene variant we know can play a role in the disease. This is a critical knowledge gap for research to address because the vast majority of Alzheimer’s patients don’t have this variant.
A new study provides key insights into what’s causing the disease. The research, published in Nature Communications, points to a breakdown over time in the brain’s system for clearing waste, an issue that seems to happen in some people as they get older.
Michael Glickman, a biologist at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, helped lead this research. I asked him to tell me about his approach to studying how this breakdown occurs in the brain, and how he tested a treatment that has potential to fix the problem at its earliest stages.
Dr. Michael Glickman is internationally renowned for his research on the ubiquitin-proteasome system (UPS), the brain's system for clearing the waste that is involved in diseases such as Huntington's, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's. He is the head of the Lab for Protein Characterization in the Faculty of Biology at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. In the lab, Michael and his team focus on protein recycling and the ubiquitin-proteasome system, which protects against serious diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, and diabetes. After earning his PhD at the University of California at Berkeley in 1994, Michael joined the Technion as a Senior Lecturer in 1998 and has served as a full professor since 2009.
Dr. Michael Glickman