Delta variant spreads across Europe, threatens summer

Race to immunise the world before a new mutation escapes vaccine protection

4 min
A group of tourists arriving at Son Sant Joan airport this week.

LondonAs soon as London made official last Thursday that Malta and other tourist spots, such as the Balearic Islands, were on its green list of safe destinations, a condition that exempts them from quarantine when returning to the country, the authorities in Valletta imposed their own conditions on Britons, who have made of the former colony one of their favourite Mediterranean holiday destinations.

Initially, UK citizens could enter without self-isolation measures: they only needed a negative PCR. Now, however, any tourist landing from the British Isles will have to be quarantined unless they have received two doses of the vaccine and can prove it. The Maltese government justified this Friday because of "the situation of reported cases of [delta] variants in the UK".

The small island south of Sicily has a magnificent situation, the best in Europe, and does not want to spoil it. The incidence of infection for the last 14 days to June 20 was 3.7 per 100,000 population. The UK health authorities had reported 166.2 cases, also per 100,000 population in two weeks to the same date. The incidence in the British Isles is 40 times higher than in Malta. The cause: the delta variant, which was first detected in India and has been rampant and dominant in the UK since the end of May, and will also be dominant in Europe by the end of August, according to a report by the European Commission Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

With the current numbers continuing to rise, it is not surprising that the UK has delayed the full opening by four weeks, from 21 June to 19 July, and that Malta, Italy, Germany, Belgium and France, but not Spain - at least for the moment - have begun to hinder the entry of Britons - citizens of a third, non-EU country - into their territories.

The European Council summit on Thursday and Friday arrived with calls from Berlin, Paris and Lisbon for greater coordination and control of the EU's borders in the face of the delta variant. The Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, and the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, both qualified these calls in their statements at the end of the meeting. Von der Leyen said: "By the end of the week, almost 60% of adults in the EU will have received at least one dose [of the vaccine], and we have almost 40% of the population fully vaccinated. This is a big step, but also a necessary one, because we are worried about the delta variant". Merkel, in turn, said, "No, border controls were not part of the conversation". But she did warn that "the pandemic is not over" and called to "avoid a fourth wave", to "be vigilant" in the face of a pandemic "that has been characterised by a succession of different variants". "I can do nothing but tell people to get the second dose of the vaccine", she said, to contain a new explosion of the disease.

Days earlier, however, the chancellor had called on other European countries to impose quarantines on travellers from countries with a high incidence of the delta variant, such as the UK.

Hopeful study

The discomfort is not just a European issue. Last Wednesday, Israel was forced to backtrack on the abolition of facemasks indoors just ten days after introducing an entirely liberating measure. The United States' chief epidemiologist, Anthony Fauci, also sees this particularly contagious variant as a threat to the country's de-escalation plan. Across Africa, infections have skyrocketed: the rise in delta cases is mixed with an alarming lack of vaccines, as only 2.5% of the population has had access to them. Australia imposed a two-week lockdown in Sydney on Saturday because of 12 new cases in the state of New South Wales. And Russia has reported an explosion of infections, with more than 20,000 infections on 25 June, and an average of around 18,000 in the last seven days. The reason, too, is the delta mutation.

One of the big questions is whether the existing vaccines can fight it. In principle, yes. This is demonstrated by a new study of the Public Health Service England released last Friday. The data certify that none of the fully vaccinated under-50s have died from the delta variant, despite the fact that the younger age groups account for 90% of infections. For the first time, in fact, PHE has broken down cases, admissions and deaths between people over and under 50 years of age.

The age division presents the effectiveness of the vaccine more clearly. The data recorded 92,029 delta infections sequenced since 1 February, with 82,458 under 50 years and 9,571 above this age, which are the most immunised group. Meanwhile, as of 21 June, 117 people in England had died of delta infection: only eight were under 50, and of these, no one had been vaccinated with two doses. And yet more reasons for optimism. More than three-quarters (78%) of admissions among those under 50 were unvaccinated and only 3% had been fully vaccinated.

The study, however, also raises a significant question, because of the remaining 109 deaths among those over 50, 50 had received the full course of vaccination. What is needed now is to look more closely at whether the doubly vaccinated deceased had special characteristics that made them especially vulnerable: for example, because of pre-existing disease conditions.

In any case, the same analysis shows that the combination of vaccination and restrictions slows the spread of the delta variant. The conclusion, therefore, is clear, and the World Health Organization can only repeat it: vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate. And not just in Europe, Israel or the United States. It has to be done all over the world as quickly as possible to prevent a new mutation from finally getting around the defences of Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna or Janssen.