UK’s Delta rollercoaster flips between virus horror, hope

In this June 19, 2021 photo, residents wait to be inoculated at a mass vaccination event at the London Stadium in London, UK. (PHOTO / BLOOMBERG)

OTTAWA / ADDIS ABABA / BUENOS AIRES / SANTIAGO / HAVANA / KINSHASA / RABAT / JOHANNESBURG / DAR ES SALAAM / KAMPALA / LONDON – Two weeks ago, the Delta variant was ripping through the UK, stoking fears of a record wave of COVID-19 clobbering one of the world’s most highly vaccinated countries.

Then, almost overnight, daily cases plummeted, renewing hope that the pandemic’s end – at least in some parts of the world – is within sight.

Now, with the US and much of the world grappling with Delta’s fury, people are looking to the UK for answers about how their respective outbreaks might unfold. But there’s no single answer, as mutations and varied vaccination coverage create conditions for swings in virus rates. While experts agree on some factors in the UK story, they’re also struggling to make sense of what’s truly accounted for the sudden reversal and whether it’s really time to relax.

“This is a remarkably rapid decline and one that few anticipated,” said Martin McKee, professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who’s scrutinizing everything from the possibility that young people are skipping COVID-19 tests to older people renewing their commitments to social distancing to the virus running up against a wall of immunity in the country. “Overall, it is a bit of a mystery.”

New daily cases in the UK reached almost 55,000 on July 17, before dropping back below 25,000 earlier this week. The situation shifts day to day, but the weekly trend certainly looks promising.

There’s consensus on one point: the high level of vaccinations in the UK, where about 57 percent of the population has had both shots, has been a godsend. That’s higher than the European Union and the U.S., which are both closing in on the 50 percent threshold.

It’s also a primary reason why the level of hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths in the UK in recent weeks – while still going up – is nowhere near approaching the horrors of last winter.

ALSO READ: US CDC says Delta variant 'as contagious as chickenpox'

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc’s antibody treatment for COVID-19 received U.S. regulators’ blessing as the first preventative therapy for unvaccinated and immunocompromised people in high-risk settings.

The decision by the Food and Drug Administration expands an emergency use authorization, first granted in November, for the antibody cocktail to treat mild to moderate COVID-19 infections in people 12 years old and up. It allows Regeneron to offer the combination of casirivimab and imdevimab, called REGEN-COV, in more contexts to more patients in the same age group. The treatment still hasn’t been cleared for patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

Antibody therapies are among the few treatments proven effective against COVID-19 infections, but they’re usually administered at infusion centers. While many such therapies carry a hefty price tag, the U.S. government pays for patients’ to receive REGEN-COV. The FDA’s decision to allow Regeneron’s therapy as a protective measure against COVID-19 could be a milestone for prevention of severe infections in high-risk individuals.

To be eligible, patients must have both a high risk of developing more severe disease from COVID-19 – either because they’re unvaccinated or have a weak immune system – and have a good chance of getting infected because of known or likely exposure. One example could be someone living in a congregate space where another person is infected. Regeneron said its therapy can also be used across multiple months if exposure continues for a longer period.

Pedestrians cross a road before a broadway street sign in New York city on July 30, 2021. (ED JONES / AFP)

WHO

The world is at risk of losing hard-won gains in fighting COVID-19 as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads, but WHO-approved vaccines remain effective, the World Health Organization said on Friday.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has described the Delta variant of the coronavirus as being as transmissible as chickenpox and cautioned it could cause severe disease, the Washington Post said, citing an internal CDC document.

COVID-19 infections have increased by 80 percent over the past four weeks in most regions of the world, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said. Deaths in Africa – where only 1.5 percent of the population is vaccinated – rose by 80 percent over the same period.

"Hard-won gains are in jeopardy or being lost, and health systems in many countries are being overwhelmed," Tedros told a news conference.

The Delta variant has been detected in 132 countries, becoming the dominant global strain, according to the WHO.

"The vaccines that are currently approved by the WHO all provide significant protection against severe disease and hospitalisation from all the variants, including the Delta variant," said WHO's top emergency expert, Mike Ryan.

Africa

Only 1.5 percent of the whole population of Africa has been vaccinated against COVID-19, and the continent might not even reach ten percent coverage by Dec. 2021, although the World Health Organization (WHO) wanted to cross that threshold by September of this year, WHO officials warned on Friday.

"Right now, we are not on track to hit ten percent coverage in Africa by the end of this year," said Bruce Aylward, senior advisor to the WHO director general, at a press conference here on Friday.

"That should be a scar on all of our conscience, quite frankly," he added, pointing out that the number of coronavirus-related deaths has increased by 80 percent on the African continent.

Only a fraction of the globally available vaccine doses have been administered in Africa, less than two percent of the 4.07 billion doses used worldwide, according to the WHO.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Africa reached 6,635,522 as of Friday afternoon, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said.

The Africa CDC, the specialized healthcare agency of the African Union, said the death toll from the pandemic stands at 168,478 while 5,813,540 patients across the continent have recovered from the disease.

Argentina

Argentina on Friday reported 13,483 new COVID-19 infections and 474 more deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the cumulative total to 4,919,408 cases and 105,586 deaths.

According to the ministry of health, 4,557,037 people have recovered from the disease while 256,785 cases are still in the active stage.

In this June 27, 2021 file photo, people receive a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a mass vaccination clinic at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto. (COLE BURSTON / THE CANADIAN PRESS VIA AP)

Canada

Canada must vaccinate as many people as possible and cautiously relax public health measures as COVID-19 case numbers creep higher at the start of what could be a fourth wave, the country's top health official said on Friday.

Rising case counts suggest "we are at the start of the Delta-driven fourth wave, but that the trajectory will depend on an ongoing increase in fully vaccinated coverage and the timing, pace and extent of reopening," Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam told reporters.

"Delta is a formidable foe," she added. Earlier a Washington Post report said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention described the variant as being as transmissible as chickenpox.

Of the variants detected in Canada, the Delta increased more than five-fold in June, Tam said.

Nationally, the seven-day rolling average of cases is 93 percent lower than it was at the peak of the third wave, but the average is climbing again, official data show.

Separately, Canada extended by about a month its main pandemic support measures, including subsidies for businesses to pay wages and rent, to Oct 23.

Chile

Chile has fully vaccinated 80 percent of the target population against COVID-19, Health Minister Enrique Paris announced Friday.

"We have reached 80 percent of the target population with a complete vaccination scheme … we congratulate Chileans because this is everyone's achievement," the official told the press.

So far, 24,750,738 vaccine doses have been administered in the South American country.

Chile reported on Friday 1,355 new COVID-19 infections and 71 more deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 1,614,629 cases and 35,366 deaths, the Ministry of Health said.

In a statement, Health Minister Enrique Paris said that in the last seven days, there has been a 14 percent decrease in cases and that in 24 hours the national positivity rate was 2.14 percent.

Portuarian employees unload a shipment of humanitarian aid from the Mexican multipurpose vessel Arm Libertador Bal-02 in Havana, on July 30, 2021. (YAMIL LAGE / AFP)

Cuba

Cuba registered 8,736 new cases of COVID-19 and 65 more deaths in the past 24 hours, accumulating 375,721 confirmed cases and raising the pandemic death toll to 2,693, the Ministry of Public Health said on Friday.

The ministry's national director of hygiene and epidemiology, Francisco Duran, noted the pandemic was affecting young people in Cuba.

DRC

The number of COVID-19 cases in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is heading toward 50,000 as the Delta variant and oxygen supply shortage pose more challenges.

Out of 1,797 samples tested on Thursday, the DRC recorded 143 new confirmed cases, announced on Friday DRC's technical secretariat of the COVID-19 response, which did not provide data on new deaths among the confirmed cases.

Since the country declared the outbreak of the disease on March 10, 2020, it has now reported 49,563 confirmed cases. In total, there have been 1,023 deaths reported.

Morocco

Morocco announced on Friday 9,128 new COVID-19 cases, taking the tally of infections in the North African country to 615,999.

The total number of recoveries from COVID-19 in Morocco increased to 557,408 after 4,425 more were added, while the number of active cases rose to 48,859.

The death toll rose to 9,732 with 35 new fatalities reported during the last 24 hours, while 941 people were in intensive care units.

South Africa

South African Acting Health Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane on Friday expressed concern about rising COVID-19 cases especially in the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

She said the Western Cape has now surpassed Gauteng in the number of new cases in the last 24 hours. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, in the last 24 hours, 29 percent of the new cases were from the Western Cape and Gauteng accounted for 27 percent.

"Although as a country we have reached and passed the peak of the third wave, there are provinces that are still on the upward trajectory especially Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal," she said when addressing the media on the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As South Africa surpassed the 70,000 death mark this week, Kubayi said that more work should be done to curb the fatalities.

Tanzania

Tanzania has established 550 COVID-19 vaccination centers in 26 regions on the mainland, a senior official said on Friday.

Abel Makubi, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, said vaccination in the regions will begin on Tuesday.

Makubi said the distribution of the vaccines will be based on the number of COVID-19 cases in each region.

On Saturday, the country with a population of about 60 million received its first batch of over one million doses of COVID-19 vaccines through the COVAX facility.

READ MORE: UK lawmakers: Pandemic may fade but high costs will linger

Uganda

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Friday eased the nationwide lockdown restrictions following the decline of daily COVID-19 cases in the east African country.

Ministry of health figures show that COVID-19 cases have reduced from over 1,000 cases registered daily in June to about 70 cases daily now.

Museveni said in a televised address after 42 days of a re-imposed lockdown, that public transport will resume on Aug. 2 but with 50 percent passenger capacity. Private transport was also reopened but vehicles will only be allowed to carry three people including the driver.

UK

Britain has reported another 29,622 coronavirus cases in the latest 24-hour period, bringing the total number of coronavirus cases in the country to 5,830,774, according to official figures released Friday.

The country also recorded another 68 coronavirus-related deaths. The total number of coronavirus-related deaths in Britain now stands at 129,583. These figures only include the deaths of people who died within 28 days of their first positive test.

US

A new study of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows the Delta variant produced similar amounts of virus in vaccinated and unvaccinated people if they get infected.

The study, published by the CDC on Friday, focused on 469 COVID-19 cases identified among Massachusetts residents who had traveled to Barnstable County, a summer vacation destination, during July 3 to 17.

A total of 346 cases, about 74 percent, occurred in fully vaccinated people, according to the study.

Testing identified the Delta variant in 90 percent of specimens from 133 patients.

Cycle threshold values were similar among specimens from patients who were fully vaccinated and those who were not, according to the study.

The study demonstrated that Delta infection resulted in similarly high SARS-CoV-2 viral loads in vaccinated and unvaccinated people, said CDC Director Rochelle Walensky.