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WHO expert: Delta variant poses stark choice between behavior change or 'more lockdowns'

·Senior Reporter
·5-min read
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The growing spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant is creating an increasingly stark choice that could make the difference between more reopenings — or a return to restrictions that decimated the world's economy, a World Health Organization expert suggested on Friday.

Amid the leak of internal documents from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), comparing the transmissibility of Delta variant to that of chickenpox, new discoveries are sparking furious debate about how vulnerable the vaccinated could be to transmitting COVID-19, should they get it. 

It also highlighted the struggles of public health officials to boost the mass vaccination effort, and encourage the voluntary use of masks in public.

Dr Bruce Aylward, senior adviser to the World Health Organization's Director General, suggested that Delta's spread is posing a challenge to relaxing restrictions that are feeding a rise in infections.

"More transmissible means more cases, more sick people, more hospitalizations, more ICU's filling up," he said. Aylward was responding to a question from Yahoo Finance about how to best communicate the seriousness of the virus to the public. 

"Which brings us to a choice: Do we do more stuff to stop it at an individual level...or do we have to go to more lockdowns to stop it?" he added.

Yet Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, pushed back against the idea of a communication failure.

"We've been speaking about this for months now. The dangers have been raised time and time again," Ryan said.

'No magic dust'

Physician Luisa Vera reacts after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at Indiana University Health, Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S., December 16, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Physician Luisa Vera reacts after receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at Indiana University Health, Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S., December 16, 2020. REUTERS/Bryan Woolston TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

The frustration was mirrored by Ben Wakana, the White House COVID-19 Response Team's communications director. In a series of tweets on Friday, he highlighted the numerous times the CDC and other agencies sounded the alarm on the variant, which is now spreading rapidly across the U.S.

Wakana ended with clear frustration, saying, "don't act like Delta is new and surprising. It's not."

The new CDC data, reported by the Washington Post and other publications, was mostly known to health experts. However, the comparison to chickenpox has put a finer point on the dangers of the variant.

"How they release this information, how it's communicated, that seems to continue to be a place for improvement" for the CDC, said Dr. Anand Parekh, chief medical advisor at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Parekh, a former U.S. Health and Human Services Department (HHS) official, said that using words like "highly" and "hyper" transmissible is how even he presents information when speaking to the media. 

But as a health expert, hearing chickenpox gives greater clarity — since that virus can easily infect eight or nine other people which is a huge jump from the original strain of the coronavirus, which was believed to spread to two other people for every one person infected, Parekh said.

The story is when we first had a vaccine, we though it would be protective against disease, and we hoped it would be protective against infection without symptoms. Each of those [ideas] keeps falling apart.Howard Forman, Yale University

WHO's Ryan said the rapidly evolving virus is creating a communications challenge, as well as steepening the learning curve for everyone. 

"In some sense, we're all in kindergarten when it comes to this virus. We're still learning," Ryan said. 

"We've taken baby steps in trying to control this virus," he added — noting gaps in the response between high- and low-income countries has fueled the deadly impact of the virus.

"There is no magic dust. People keep asking for magic dust. It doesn't exist," he added.

Dr. Howard Forman, a health policy management professor at Yale, told Yahoo Finance that even with the headlines Friday, the information is all in "an echo chamber. That's the hard part. How do you get through to people who are not understanding this?" he asked, calling for better information dissemination.

"The story is when we first had a vaccine, we though it would be protective against disease, and we hoped it would be protective against infection without symptoms. Each of those [ideas] keeps falling apart," Forman said.

It's why, he added, "Herd immunity is an absolutely nonexistent issue now. It's not achievable now."

However, data suggests the vaccines do protect against death and severe disease; meanwhile, the surge in Delta variant hospitalizations has disproportionately impacted the unvaccinated.

That's the point Dr. Leana Wen worries will be lost in the focus on the new data — that the vaccines still do work, and help prevent more severe cases.

"I worry that the leaked documents, without additional context, is leading to the wrong conclusion. It is true that if you are vaccinated you can get infected. It is true that if you're vaccinated and get infected you can spread it to others," she said.

"That does not mean, though, that vaccines don't work," Wen added.

Parekh also noted the CDC has struggled with sharing data. In changing masking guidance this week, the agency made a decision based on data, but did not share it. 

And with concerns over Delta unlikely to subside anytime soon, Parekh said it suggests "the direction we are going in is, essentially, we need universal masking."

Meanwhile, experts are already bracing for more mutations of the coronavirus.

"This will not be the last virus variant you hear us talking about," said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead at WHO.

"There will be more," she said.

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