The highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 was under the microscope at the latest in the Data@Breakfast webinar hosted by UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.
Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP) Professor Tulio de Oliveira looked at the emergence of the Delta variant, first sampled in India in October 2020 and now rapidly becoming dominant in many countries.
De Oliveira traced the proliferation of variants in South Africa including Delta, Beta (first identified in South Africa), and Alpha. ‘We are now quite confident that the Delta variant is responsible for most of the infections in the explosive third wave,’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, we expect it to completely take over infections in the country.’
Referring to the rapid increase in cases in Gauteng, he said: ‘As the Delta variant starts increasing in prevalence in Gauteng, it is starting to fuel the number of infections.’ He explained that genome sequencing data from Gauteng on 19 June showed that more than 75% of infections are due to the Delta variant. Similarly, infections in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape are also being fuelled by rapidly increasing cases of Delta.
Infectious disease specialist based at KRISP, Dr Richard Lessells, focused on the transmissibility of the Delta variant. Lessells said, ‘As Tulio says, transmissibility trumps everything.’ He noted that data from a number of different studies suggests that the Delta variant is significantly more transmissible than the other variants of concern, including Beta and Alpha (first identified in the United Kingdom (UK)) and probably about twice as transmissible as the first viruses discovered in Wuhan, China. ‘This virus spreads very efficiently from person to person, and this means that it can spread very quickly in our communities, within healthcare facilities and anywhere that people gather in close contact.’
He said that evidence from the UK shows that we may be seeing a slightly different symptom profile with the Delta variant. Prominent symptoms seem to include a runny nose, sneezing, headaches and a sore throat.
Lessells said that, as yet, there is no clear evidence of disease severity and cautioned that there may be a risk of reinfection due to a ‘reduction in neutralisation with serum from people infected with the Beta variant.’
He posed the question: ‘What does this variant mean for the vaccines?’ Lessells said there appears to be high levels of protection against severe disease for vaccinated individuals. ‘This news is encouraging. There is new data coming out on a daily basis that shows us that the vaccines should retain high levels of protection with severe disease with the Delta variant.’
Head of the Centre for Quantum Technology at UKZN, Professor Francesco Petruccione, paid tribute to de Oliveira and Lessells for being central in tackling ‘the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa and making some of the crucial decisions that paved the trajectory of fighting COVID-19 in the country.’
Words: Raylene Captain-Hasthibeer