Delta variant: ‘Government was not wrong, some of the scientists were wrong’ – expert

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Dr. Richard Lessells.
Dr. Richard Lessells.
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  • Amid criticism that government was slow to act after the first cases of the Delta variant of Covid-19 were confirmed, a leading expert has spoken out.
  • Government relies on a surveillance network for the early detection of different strains of the coronavirus that are circulating.
  • Dr Richard Lessells, part of the team that first found the B1.351 variant last year, says he was wrong to think the Delta variant would not become the dominant variant in the country.

Dr Richard Lessells, a leading infectious diseases expert, has admitted that scientists may have been wrong in thinking the Delta variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 would not become the dominant variant circulating in South Africa.

The Delta variant was first discovered in India in October 2020 and has come to dominate new Covid-19 infections around the world. The strain is more transmissible than previous variants, but has not yet been shown to cause more severe disease.

READ | Devastating Delta variant: Data shows how Covid-19 strain is wreaking havoc, especially in Gauteng

A group leader at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform (KRISP), Lessells said that vaccines were the only way to curb the ever mutating and evolving virus.

"The data tells us that the Delta variant is less resistant to neutralisation than the Beta variant. We expect the vaccines will be more effective against the Delta variant than they were or would have been against the Beta variant," he said.

He was speaking to News24 on Monday morning, hours after President Cyril Ramaphosa's address on Sunday evening. The president announced government's decision to move the country to Adjusted Level 4 Lockdown.

Questions have been raised over the apparent lack of urgency in preparing for a third wave in the context of cases of the Delta variant being picked up in South Africa as early as May this year, and there has been a delay in publication of data from Gauteng to show what proportion of cases are attributable to the Delta variant.

READ | Rise of the variants: What you need to know about the Delta variant in SA

Lessells' KRISP colleague, Professor Tulio de Oliveira, on Saturday presented data from KwaZulu-Natal up to 17 June that showed the Delta variant was dominant in the province. Ramaphosa on Sunday said cases of the Delta variant had been detected in five provinces.

Elsewhere in the world the Delta variant is widely credited with resurgences in cases and quickly became dominant after first being detected. Coupled with an early relaxation in restrictions and large political and cultural gatherings in India, the variant is widely thought to have been behind devastating surges in Covid-19 cases in the country that has seen hospitals overwhelmed.

Lessells said that the fight was now about vaccination equity, saying that Africa had been marginalised.

Presently, many countries in the Northern Hemisphere are returning to some semblance of normality following extensive vaccination programmes in many First-World nations. 

Lessells said:

It is global and that is why we keep making the point about vaccine equity and needing to get vaccines to Africa because we are so far behind the rest of the world and vaccination is our main path to deal with this.

Vaccinations work against Delta

He said there was good evidence pointing to vaccinations working against the Delta variant.

"We have good data to show that the vaccines offer very high levels of protection again the disease with the Delta variant. So, vaccination is key. We really need to accelerate the pace of vaccination now."

Lessells said more deadly variants would continue to emerge if the vaccination process was not more efficient.

"There is no doubt that different variants will continue to emerge in different parts of the world until we get much better control of the spread of the virus. That's why vaccinations are key and why vaccinations have to be in all parts of the world.

"Any gap will allow continued transmission and evolution of the virus. It is a recurring pattern. If a variant emerges somewhere, it will very quickly travel and be everywhere in a short space of time."

He said the next variant would be difficult to predict and that slow vaccinations in different parts of the world were a problem for the entire world:

We don't know what the next variant would be and what properties it might have. It seems we are still kind of willing to take the chance and risk something more severe than this variant. It is an extremely dangerous virus now and is highly transmissible.

The Delta variant shows how unpredictable Covid-19 is

Lessells said government was not to blame for the emergence of the Delta variant which is now in at least 85 other countries.

"Government was not wrong, some of the scientists were wrong. Personally, I did not think the Delta would come and displace or replace the Beta variant. It now looks like that may well be the case.

"It is a reflection and a reminder of how quickly this virus (moves) within countries and between countries and how quickly it can spread and how the different variants all have somewhat different properties and how we are learning how that plays out at a population level."

READ | Delta variant in SA: Why getting your second shot of the Pfizer vaccine is so important

He said scientists did not initially anticipate that the Delta variant would spread at its current rate.

"While we were seeing some of the Delta, we thought it would not take over infections. We clearly got that wrong and of course we need more data to understand what is happening. We should have that in the next day or two."

He said scientists did not "miss" anything, but that the nature of the virus was unpredictable at times.

"I am not sure if I would frame it that anything was missed. The reality of all these variants is that by the time you have understood and characterised each of these variants, they have already spread significantly within and outside our borders.

"With (the) Beta variant, by the time we reported it and understood it was something significant, it had already got out of SA to many other countries. The same is the case with the Alpha variant in the UK. By the time they knew what they were dealing with there, it was all around the world.

"It really is a reflection of how quickly this virus spreads and how difficult it is to control it. It is a reminder that this is a global pandemic and it's not each country on their own."

Additional reporting by Kyle Cowan

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