The lethal Delta variant of the coronavirus is more transmissible than the preceding Alpha strain and it will evolve into another variant, the Word Health Organization’s chief epidemiologist warned on Tuesday.
The Delta variant spreads faster than the others and is now in 96 countries, Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said at the ACT Accelerator Facilitation Council briefing for WHO members.
She said zero prevalence studies done around the globe show that much of the world still remains susceptible to infections, with vaccination drives “uneven and inequitable around the world.”
“We’re starting to see an increase [in infections] again, 18 months into a global pandemic, where all of us are exhausted,” she explained.
“We shouldn’t be in this position … with more than 183 million confirmed cases and 3.9 million deaths. This is certainly an underestimate of the burden.”
Van Kerkhove said there has been an increase in cases in Europe, the eastern Mediterranean region, Africa, the western Pacific, and Southeast Asia, while a decline has been witnessed in the Americas.
“But at the national level, there are more than 20 countries right now that have exponential growth … [they] have vertical or almost vertical transmission,” she said.
Recalling what had happened in Brazil and India, she said the focus is now on Nepal and Afghanistan.
“The Delta variant is more transmissible than the Alpha variant. And the Alpha variant was incredibly transmissible, and once it took hold in countries, it really took off,” Van Kerkhove said.
“With increased transmissibility, it [Delta] will become the dominant virus circulating. But it won’t stop there. Delta itself is evolving – the virus is evolving every day. The more opportunities this virus has to spread, the more opportunities it will have to change.”
The WHO scientist warned that new strains “will continue to emerge and impact every aspect of the [pandemic] response” as public health and social measures remain inconsistent worldwide.
“We have our systems significantly under pressure; our health systems, our health workers, our global supplies, our surveillance systems, our contact tracing systems,” she explained.
“And our communities remain under-engaged and under-empowered to be able to carry out proven public health and social measures.”
At the same meeting, WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus said the COVAX Facility Advanced Market Commitment mechanism was funded for this year, but substantial risks remain in the vaccine supply forecast.
“The IMF [International Monetary Fund], World Bank, WTO [World Trade Organization], and WHO are working together to find practical ways to track, coordinate, and advance the delivery of lifesaving tools to low- and middle-income countries,” he said.