By the end of August, the highly contagious Delta variant of the new coronavirus is expected to account for 90 percent of the new COVID-19 cases in the European Union, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
The warning by the health agency on Wednesday echoed a similar statement by the World Health Organization last week, which said the variant first identified in India was becoming dominant globally.
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The ECDC estimates that the Delta variant (B.1.617.2) is 40 to 60 percent more contagious than the Alpha variant (B.1.1.7), first discovered in the United Kingdom, which is currently the predominant variant of the novel coronavirus circulating in the bloc.
Because of its increased transmissibility, Delta is a matter of concern for many governments across Europe even as most countries are moving to ease restrictions in the wake of an overall fall in new COVID-19 cases.
“It is very likely that the Delta variant will circulate extensively during the summer, particularly among younger individuals that are not targeted for vaccination,” the ECDC said.
“This could cause a risk for the more vulnerable individuals to be infected and experience severe illness and death if they are not fully vaccinated.”
The centre said it was “very important to progress with the vaccine rollout at a very high pace” in order to stop the spread of the variant and mitigate its health impact. To date, about 30 percent of those aged 80 and above and 40 percent of the above-60s in the EU are still not fully vaccinated, as per the ECDC data.
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With most EU members having not yet fully inoculated one-third of their populations, the ECDC also urged countries to be cautious about easing curbs aimed at limiting the spread of the virus.
“Any relaxation over the summer months of the stringency of non-pharmaceutical measures that were in place … in early June could lead to a fast and significant increase in daily cases in all age groups,” the agency said.
This increase could in turn lead to a rise in “hospitalisations, and deaths, potentially reaching the same levels of the autumn of 2020 if no additional measure” is taken, it added.
But the ECDC said two doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine offered “high protection” against the variant and its consequences.
It came as a new study by Oxford University researchers, published in the journal Cell, said COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca and Pfizer remain broadly effective against the Delta variant.
The scientists investigated the ability of antibodies in the blood from people, who were vaccinated with the two-shot regimens, to neutralise the more contagious variant.
“There is no evidence of widespread escape suggesting that the current generation of vaccines will provide protection against the B.1.617 lineage,” the paper said.
Last week, an analysis by the Public Health England (PHE) also showed that vaccines made by Pfizer and AstraZeneca provided more than 90 percent protection against hospitalisation from the Delta variant.
The Oxford researchers also analysed the likelihood of reinfection in people who had previously had COVID-19.
Looking at the ability of antibodies in their blood samples to neutralise the variants, the risk of reinfection with the Delta variant appeared particularly high in individuals previously infected by the Beta and Gamma lineages that were first identified in South Africa and Brazil, respectively.
By contrast, the previous infection with the Alpha variant conferred “reasonable” cross-protection against all variants of concern, lending itself as a template that next-generation vaccines could be moulded on.
“[Alpha] might be a candidate for new variant vaccines to provide the broadest protection,” the researchers said.