Delta Plus may sound like a new special service being offered by Delta Airlines. But when flying or doing anything else for that matter, don’t ask for the Delta Plus Covid-19 coronavirus variant. You may not like what you get.
The name refers to a new variant of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV2). It’s received the “Plus” designation because it’s not quite different enough from the original Delta variant to merit its own Greek alphabet letter. In fact, it’s basically the already-concerning Delta variant, plus one new addition. That new edition is a K417N mutation, a mutation that affect the virus’s spike protein.
New variants emerge when mutations occur in the genetic code of the virus. When the Covid-19 coronavirus reproduces in the cells of your body, it can be similar to a drunk person hastily making photocopies of his or her bottom at the office. The virus can end up making various mistakes when replicating its genetic code. These “mistakes” are essentially mutations that can yield slightly different versions of the virus. Some of these mutations may make the virus weaker. Some may have little effect. Others may make the virus stronger like what has happened with the Delta variant and what now may be the case with the Delta Plus variant.
India was the first country to find the Delta Plus variant, just like it was the first to find the original Delta variant. In fact, the Indian government has already designated this Delta Plus variant a “variant of concern.” Being designated a “variant of concern” is like winning an Oscar for viruses, but the exact opposite. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a “variant of concern” as one that has any of the following:
- “Increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology
- Increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation
- Decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics.”
The WHO has already applied the “variant of concern” label to the original Delta variant, otherwise known as the B.1.617.2 variant if you prefer using a name that looks like an incomplete Boston-area phone number. The Delta Plus variant has a similar alternative name as well: the B.1.617.2.1 variant, which looks like someone managed to dial one more digit. Then there’s the Sopranos-esque name for the Delta Plus variant: the AY.1 variant.
Is designating the Delta Plus variant as a “variant of concern” separate from the original Delta variant a case of premature nomination? Is the Delta Plus variant different enough from the original Delta variant? Or are they like the 2011 movies No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits, essentially the same thing except one has the K417N mutation or Ashton Kutcher and the other does not? The key question really is how much worse than Delta might Delta Plus be?
Well, there’s little question that the original Delta variant is already highly concerning. This more contagious version of the virus has been spreading rapidly throughout different parts of the world. It’s triggered resurgences in Nepal and Southeast Asia and compelled the U.K. government to delay their planned full reopening of society, as Ewen Callaway reported for Nature. The appearance of the original Delta variant in Sydney, Australia, has led to a new round of shutdowns.
Data has suggested that the original Delta variant is about 40% to 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant. There was a time when the Alpha variant, otherwise known as the B.1.1.7 variant, was the alpha dog of the Covid-19 coronaviruses. After the Alpha variant was first detected in the United Kingdom, it soon became apparent that this variant was already more contagious than the original version of the SARS-CoV2 that started the pandemic. But while alpha males may be into manspreading, the Alpha variant of the Covid-19 coronavirus can’t seem to spread faster than the Delta variant. As a result, the Delta variant may soon outcompete the Alpha variant as well as other more common versions of the SARS-CoV2 to become the dominant strain in many countries.
There’s also the concern that the Delta variant may be more adept at attacking your lung cells. This is bad news for not only your lung cells but you as well. After all, unless something had gone horribly wrong, you and your lung cells are attached. As a result, the Delta variant may be more likely than other versions of the virus to make you more ill. A June 11 report from Public Health England indicated that “early data from both England and Scotland demonstrate an increased risk of hospitalisation with Delta compared to Alpha.”
Another concern is how well the existing Covid-19 vaccines may protect against the Delta variant. A study from Public Health England suggests that Covid-19 vaccines may be a little less effective in preventing symptomatic Covid-19 from the Delta variant versus such disease from the alpha variant. During the study period, April 5 to May 16, the difference for two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine was an 88% effectiveness against the Delta variant versus 93% against the Alpha variant. For the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, the numbers were 60% versus 66%.
So what difference will this K417N mutation make? Anything that changes the spike protein deserves a closer look, since the virus uses the spike proteins on its surface to attach to and enter your cells. Plus, the Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Astra Zeneca Covid-19 vaccines focus on generating immune responses against the spike protein. So will a virus with a different appearing spike protein be able to better avoid the vaccine-induced immune response?
The K417N mutation is not a completely new mutation. It already is present in the Beta variant (B.1.351 lineage) that was first found in South Africa. The question though is what will happen when this mutation is combined with the mutations already present in the original Delta variant. Time and more research will tell.
Meanwhile, the Delta Plus variant, in the adapted words of Dory the fish from the movie Finding Nemo, just keeps spreading, just keeps spreading. According to Bhargav Acharya and Shilpa Jamkhandikar writing for Reuters, India has already had at least 40 reported cases of the Delta Plus variant. The U.S. has had at least 83, the U.K. at least 36, Portugal at least 22, Switzerland at least 18, and Japan at least 15. The Delta variant has also already appeared in Canada, Nepal, Poland , Russia, and Turkey. As long as many people around the world remain unvaccinated, expect these numbers to keep rising in the coming weeks.
Again the question is whether the additional mutation in the Delta plus variant will make it even more transmissible, even better able to attack your lung cells, and even more resistant to antibody responses than the original Delta variant. And how well will the currently available Covid-19 vaccines protect against the Delta Plus variant?
One thing’s for sure. Both the Delta variant and the Delta Plus variant have “fitness advantages” over the earlier versions of the Covid-19 coronavirus. This doesn’t mean that the Delta variants can do more burpees. Instead, a fitness advantage for viruses is when one version has characteristics that allow it to out-compete and spread faster and further than other versions. A variant with a clear fitness advantage will probably eventually become the dominant version throughout much of the world.
The only ways to prevent the Delta and Delta Plus variants from becoming dominant is to employ a combination of social distancing and face mask wearing to slow their spread until enough people are vaccinated to reach herd immunity thresholds. Once herd immunity thresholds are reached and exceeded, the viruses will have much more difficulty spreading. It will then be a lot easier to contain the spread of the virus, and life can truly “return to normal.”
This may sound straightforward. However, there are big buts, I cannot lie. One big but are the people who still refuse to take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously or who are relaxing too soon and too quickly. Many parts of the U.S. seem about as ready to deal with the Delta variant as your dog is to drive your car. In many locations, social distancing and face mask-wearing appear to be going the way of the rotary phone or MySpace with people abandoning these measures as if the pandemic were over. But no official public health authority has declared the pandemic over. Not even close. In May, as I covered for Forbes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relaxed social distancing and face mask guidelines for just those who are fully vaccinated, not for everyone. But as you can see, many unvaccinated people have foregone such precautions as well. As of today, 46.1% of the total population in the U.S. is fully vaccinated. But vaccinations rates seem to be slowing significantly. As Zombieland and basically every horror movie should have taught you, premature relaxation can be a grave mistake.