How much do we need to worry about the Delta Plus variant?

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If your Instagram stories are any indicator, Hot Vax Summer is in full swing in the United States. But amid the reunions and revelry, sobering headlines remind us that the pandemic isn’t over yet. Lately, concerns have been swirling around the Delta Plus coronavirus variant, first detected in India in April and now present in almost a dozen countries, including the U.S., the New York Times reported. Here’s everything you need to know about this new variant.

What is the Delta Plus variant?

Delta Plus is related to the highly transmissible Delta variant that’s ripped through India, the U.K., the U.S., and other countries, per the Times. The newspaper explained that Delta Plus bears a mutation on the spike protein the virus uses to invade our cells, which scientists have also seen in the Beta variant that first emerged in South Africa. At this point, though, we can’t say whether this mutation, known as K417N, results in worse clinical effects, Lewis Nelson, chair of the department of emergency medicine and chief of the division of medical toxicology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells Mic.

Since scientists only recently unearthed Delta Plus, we have limited information on it, the Times noted, so assessments of its transmissibility remain speculative. But we can draw some inferences based on what we’ve seen in Delta. “The genetic makeup of this variant [Delta Plus] is not sufficiently different from the Delta variant to give it its own name,” Nelson says, implying that we would respond to it pretty similar to how we would respond to Delta.

So far, we know that the Delta variant is around 40 to 60% more contagious than the Alpha variant first detected in the U.K., and may very well become the dominant strain in many countries, according to Forbes. The outlet adds that it may also make you sicker than other variants.

How effective are the vaccines against it?

Again, as the Times pointed out, there have been zero studies on the Delta Plus variant. But we do have some data on how the vaccines hold up against the original Delta variant. Among fully vaccinated people in the U.K. who became infected with Delta, 50 died, according to Public Health England data.

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These data, though concerning, aren’t surprising. While the vaccines are very effective — and you should get vaxxed if you haven't already — they aren’t perfect, Nelson says. Fully immunized people who died tended to be from high-risk age groups, Insider pointed out, and made up only a sliver of the more than 92,000 Delta cases investigated. Another analysis from Public Health England concluded that getting both doses of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines is crucial to preventing hospitalization from Delta.

Although the effectiveness of the vaccines against Delta Plus is still unclear, Nelson doubts that the variant can completely evade them. “So far, with all of the variants that we’ve seen, the mutations in the spike protein have not made it resistant to the antibodies that the vaccine brings,” he explains.

How worried do we need to be in the U.S.?

Experts told ABC4 that we don’t need to panic about Delta Plus — whose incidence remains low — and suggested focusing instead on Delta, which is much more widespread. The Times reported that Delta is the culprit behind around 20% of COVID cases in the U.S.

Vaccination is key to keeping Delta and Delta Plus in check. “Get vaccinated, and encourage friends and family to do likewise," David Thomas, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells Mic. “If community rates start to increase, then principally associating with vaccinated people is safest.”

Plus, Nelson points out, the more of us who get vaccinated, the less likely a new mutation — including one that does enable the virus to circumvent the vaccines — will arise. Masking up and taking other precautions can also help lower this risk, he adds. He recommends wearing a mask indoors in areas with a high incidence of Delta Plus or any variant of concern, especially if you’re in close quarters with people who aren’t vaccinated. “It’s not that big an ask,” he says.