Home column - Friday COVID-19 rapidly spreading Delta variant, By Isaac N. Obasi

COVID-19 rapidly spreading Delta variant, By Isaac N. Obasi


Despite the impressive and highly commendable efforts made by scientists across the world to stem the tide of the ravaging effects of the COVID-19 pandemic through the discovery of various vaccines, the virus has simply remained stubborn and unyielding across the world. This unfortunate situation has been sustained by its mutative power giving rise to the emergence of different variants now on the surface of the earth. This has also led to the emergence of third or fourth waves and the re-introduction of lockdowns in different parts of the world. 

As we all know, the virus originated in Wuhan, China. It was then followed by a new variant that originated in the United Kingdom (UK), then again by another that originated in South Africa, another in Brazil, and yet another in India, among others. And in order to avoid reference to a variant’s country of origin or geographical location, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has responded by naming the different variants with Greek letters starting with Alpha, to Beta, Gamma, and Delta etc.

Consequently, the WHO named the variant discovered in the UK as Alpha, then that of South Africa as Beta, Brazil as Gamma and then India as Delta. Again, there is a complementary classification announced by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of the United States of America (US). This US-based classification provides clearer understanding of the level of ravaging effects of each variant on human beings, its power of transmission, expected therapeutic response and efficacy, and lastly, the level of hospitalisation. Accordingly, the CDC’s three-fold classifications are: (a) Variant of Interest (VOI), (b) Variant of Concern (VOC), and (c) Variant of High Consequence (VOHC). 

The CDC’s Variant of Interest is associated ‘with …reduced neutralisation by antibodies generated against previous infection or vaccination, reduced efficacy of treatments, potential diagnostic impact, or predicted increase in transmissibility or disease severity’. Then, a Variant of Concern is one were “there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (e.g., increased hospitalisation or deaths), significant reduction in neutralisation by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures”. Lastly, a Variant of High Consequence is one which “has clear evidence that prevention measures or medical countermeasures have significantly reduced effectiveness relative to previously circulating variants” (See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/variant-info.html). 

Our focus in this piece is on the WHO’s Delta Variant which is the same as the CDC’s Variant of Concern, even though it has a minor mutation called delta plus. Simply put, a delta variant of COVID-19 is more dangerous than the previous Alpha and Beta variants. In fact, Emily Anthes in the New York Times (June 2021) called it a ‘super-contagious’ variant because of its high rate of transmission. The delta variant is known so far to be characterised by five features (See Linda Geddes’ summary via https://www.gavi.org/vaccineswork/five-things-we-know-about-delta-coronavirus-variant-and-two-things-we-still-need). 

First, delta variant spreads rapidly around the world. For example, as of 14 June, 2021, it was already in 74 countries worldwide according to the WHO. But as of 29 June 2021 (about two weeks later) it had spread to 96 countries according to the WHO. Secondly, delta variant appears to be more transmissible. The UK government estimate said that it is 40% more transmissible than the Alpha variant and it accounts for more than 91% of UK COVID-19 cases. Thirdly, delta variant may be associated with different symptoms, with headache, sore throat, running nose and fever as major features, while cough and loss of sense of smell which were major features of earlier variants becoming rare. Fourthly, delta variant may cause more hospitalisation compared with the Alpha variant as it may “double the risk of hospitalisation”. And lastly, with delta variant, one vaccine dose is less effective, but with two doses are still strongly protective. 

Faced with all these frightening features, how is Nigeria affected, and what has been Nigeria’s policy response so far? According to the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC), so far (as at late June, 2021) there was no delta variant in Nigeria. This is good news which does not, however, call for complacency. This is because, according to the African Regional Office of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in its announcement on 24 June 2021, the delta variant is in 14 African countries (See https://www.cidrap.umn.edu/news-perspective/2021/06/delta-covid-variant-fuels-global-surges-complicates-reopenings). And more worrying is that Ghana and South Africa which have high level of air travel contacts with Nigeria are already having the delta variant. This places Nigeria in a dangerous situation if nothing seriously is done by way of restriction of movement particularly with Ghana. 

Nigeria’s policy response {through the Presidential Steering Committee (PSC)} so far, is commendable, because it had much earlier placed travel ban on India, South Africa and Brazil that had the delta, beta and gamma variants respectively. This earlier proactive policy response has saved Nigeria from the embarrassment that its health system would have had if the ban had not been imposed. The searchlight now should be on air travel and land border movements between Nigeria and Ghana. It is, therefore, cheering to hear that Nigeria has placed itself on high alert monitoring what is happening in African countries where the delta variant has been reported. Again, according to the health minister, Dr. Osagie Ehanire, Nigeria has scaled up surveillance at all border entry points to prevent the importation of the delta variant in the country. While this proactive measure is commendable, it should be effectively implemented. 

In spite of all these re-assuring policy measures, there is still a major concern in Nigeria particularly with respect to how the citizens are flouting the COVID-19 safety protocols in public. For example, a close look at social interactions reveals that observance of social distancing is now a thing of the past. At event centres where wedding ceremonies are held on weekly basis, people do not care to observe the social distancing safety rule. Again, to make matters worse, they also do not care to put their face marks on, even when the ‘No Mask, No Entry Notice’ is conspicuously placed at the entrance to the arena. With respect to religious groups, some are actually trying their best, but some others have gone back to the business-as-usual behaviour. The situation is not better at burial ceremonies. All these violations therefore require that the PSC should intensify its risk communication activities as done during the first phase of the lockdown, for as the saying goes, ‘a stitch in time saves nine’.  

Prof. Obasi of the University of Abuja, is a Visiting (Adjunct) Research Professor at the Anti-Corruption Academy of Nigeria, (ACAN), ICPC, Email: [email protected].  

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