Spate of Global Lockdowns as Countries Scramble to Contain Delta Variant 
Countries (in blue) where the Delta variant has been verified (US CDC)

Countries as diverse as Russia, Portugal, South Africa and Sydney have imposed new lockdown regulations as they attempt to control the spread of Delta, the SARS-CoV-2 variant that is more deadly and infectious than any other variant.

By last Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the Delta (B.1.617.2) variant had been detected in at least 85 countries, describing it as the “fastest and fittest” variant, likely to dominate all others in time.

The WHO also urged everyone – including those who are fully vaccinated – to continue to wear masks in the face of Delta, which was responsible for the devastating wave of COVID-19 cases in India in early May where the country recorded over 400,000 cases per day.  The WHO advice has prompted renewed debate over mask policies in countries like the United States, where the US Centres for Disease Control had recently stated that fully vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks indoors or outside.  Even Israel, which had driven COVID cases down to nearly zero with one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, has now reinstated mask requirements for indoors spaces and mass gatherings – in the face of a Delta-driven virus resurgence.  

In Russia’s capital, meanwhile, unvaccinated Muscovites have been told to work from home and observe tighter restrictions on movement and social gatherings, as the city’s mayor told the public that Delta now accounts for over 90% of the city’s new COVID-19 cases.

South Africa moved to a Level Four lockdown on Monday, bringing a tighter curfew, the closure of sit-down restaurants, and a ban on alcohol sales for two weeks. The country has been battling a third wave, which is surging in its economic heartland – Gauteng province – which by Sunday accounted for over half the country’s 158,998 active cases. Leisure travel in and out of the province has also been restricted for two weeks.

Over the past weekend, only those who had been vaccinated or could show a negative COVID-19 test were allowed to enter or leave Portugal’s capital, Lisbon. Last Thursday, the city recorded its highest case number since February – 1556 new cases – and authorities said that 70% of these were from the new variant.

Sydney residents have been ordered to stay at home for two weeks since last Saturday (26 June) and entering or leaving the city is prohibited except for a few exceptions. New South Wales reported 130 active cases by Sunday.

Taiwan tightened border controls from 27 June, making a 14-day quarantine mandatory for all travellers. Those from seven high-risk countries – Brazil, India, the UK, Peru, Israel, Indonesia, and Bangladesh – face free quarantine in government facilities while all other travellers need to quarantine in group quarantine facilities at their own expense, according to the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The proportion of Delta cases in the US has risen exponentially in the past month and now account for almost 10% of cases, with the highest prevalence in Missouri where almost 30% of cases are due to Delta, according to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

In May, 4,7% of California’s cases were from the Delta variant but this had jumped to 14.5% of cases by 21 June, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Delta Variant Associated With Higher Risk of Hospitalisation

A report on COVID-19 hospitalisations in Scotland published in The Lancet, reported that there had been twice as many hospitalisations in people infected with the Delta variant in comparison to the Alpha variant.

“Based on the available evidence, the SARS-CoV-2 Delta (B.1.617.2) variant of concern (VOC) is 40-60% more transmissible than the Alpha (Β.1.1.7) VOC and may be associated with higher risk of hospitalisation,” according to a risk assessment published by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control last week.

“Furthermore, there is evidence that those who have only received the first dose of a two-dose vaccination course are less well protected against infection with the Delta variant than against other variants, regardless of the vaccine type. However, full vaccination provides nearly equivalent protection against the Delta variant,” it added.

A risk assessment for Delta published last Friday by the UK government noted that  

“there are now analyses from England and Scotland supporting a reduction in vaccine effectiveness for Delta compared to Alpha against symptomatic infection” which were “more pronounced after one dose”. 

“Iterated analysis continues to show vaccine effectiveness against Delta is high after 2 doses. Current evidence suggests that [vaccine efficacy] against hospitalisation is maintained,” it added.

Europe CDC Warns Against Summer Relaxation as Africa Scrambles for Vaccines

Delta is the predominant variant in the UK and is driving a surge in cases there, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control predicted that Delta would account for 90% of cases in the European Union by the end of August.

“Modelling scenarios indicate that any relaxation over the summer months of the stringency of non-pharmaceutical measures that were in place in the EU/EEA in early June could lead to a fast and significant increase in daily cases in all age groups, with an associated increase in hospitalisations, and deaths, potentially reaching the same levels of the autumn of 2020 if no additional measure are taken,” it warned, urging faster vaccination of vulnerable groups.

However, mass vaccinations are still out of the reach of many African countries that are dependent on the WHO-lead global vaccine access platform, COVAX, which has run out of vaccines for distribution.

Cases continue to surge in southern and East Africa, with Delta suspected to be driving cases in Uganda, Zimbabwe and Zambia, as well as South Africa which confirmed last Sunday that Delta was driving its third wave.

Spread of the Delta variant in South Africa

Meanwhile, a more dangerous mutation of the variant,  Delta Plus,  is driving cases in the Indian state of Maharashtra, causing the state to tighten up on restrictions there. All malls and auditoriums were closed from Monday.

Delta Plus is more transmissible than Delta, according to the Indian health ministry. Public Health England issued a briefing on Delta Plus last Friday noting that 41 cases had been detected in the UK.

Image Credits: US CDC, Department of Health, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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