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Delta variant sparks concerns, future mutations remain a threat

·Senior Reporter
·3-min read
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The Delta variant is an increasing source of concern for health experts as vaccinations wane and the holiday weekend approaches in the U.S. Those at the highest risk are unvaccinated individuals and people living in pockets of states with low vaccination rates.

It's why the Biden administration is readying "surge response" teams to focus on the high risk areas, according to the reports Thursday.

The country has reported less than 55% of the vaccine-eligible population as fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); 63% have received at least one dose.

Dr. Arthur Caplan, a leading bioethicist at NYU Langone Health, says individuals who have only received one dose could be at risk, as are even fully vaccinated people.

"It's 95% (effective), so 5 out of 100 will get sick, so it's not perfect," Caplan said.

Experts are increasingly focused on African countries and other unvaccinated regions. The unprecedented need, plus the failure of the COVAX facility — a program that largely depended on the Serum Institute of India to produce AstraZeneca (AZN) vaccines for the global population — has lead to frustration among developing countries.

At a recent Milken Institute event, Strive Masiyiwa, a Zimbabwean billionaire and Africa's COVID-19 envoy, was critical of the World Health Organization's failed program.

"COVAX was not supposed to go and purchase from one supplier, in India, then tell us in June ...'Sorry, there's a problem in India.' Who does the risk analysis of this stuff?" Masiyiwa said.

The move leaves many countries, which have subsequently sought individual purchase agreements with Pfizer (PFE), as well as Moderna (MRNA) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), unprotected. Others have turned to Russia's Sputnik V and China's Sinovac.

Masiyiwa said he met with all the manufacturers in December of 2020 to purchase vaccines up front in cash.

"They said all capacity for 2021 has been sold. So the people who bought the vaccines and the people who sold them the vaccines knew that there would be nothing for us," he said.

Time is of the essence, as more variants could emerge in poorer countries as they wait for vaccines.

A teenager reacts while receiving a dose of a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as Israel urged more 12- to 15-year-olds to be vaccinated, citing new outbreaks attributed to the more infectious Delta variant, at a Clalit healthcare maintenance organisation in Tel Aviv, Israel June 21, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
A teenager reacts while receiving a dose of a vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as Israel urged more 12- to 15-year-olds to be vaccinated, citing new outbreaks attributed to the more infectious Delta variant, at a Clalit healthcare maintenance organisation in Tel Aviv, Israel June 21, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

'It's hard to make vaccines. They always break. They did break'

The Delta variant is reportedly twice as transmissible as the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7 and originating in the U.K., which was responsible for a surge in cases earlier this year.

The Delta variant, previously known as B.1.617.2, originated in India and fueled a surge that caused the Indian government to pressure its largest vaccine maker to pivot its distribution to within the nation.

It's why Caplan believes the initial focus on COVAX was "really optimistic" considering the numerous things that can, and usually do, go wrong with manufacturing vaccines.

"It's hard to make vaccines. They always break. They did break," Caplan said, pointing to the issues Emergent BioSolutions had with a plant in Baltimore that affected J&J's vaccine rollout.

Caplan said it's imperative to get the rest of the world vaccinated while also bracing for the potential need of booster shots in the U.S.

"We will not need boosters in the fall. But we probably will be starting to talk about boosters next year because older people may not show sustained response (from the vaccine)," Caplan said.

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