How the Delta variant upends assumptions about the coronavirus

By Julie Steenhuysen, Alistair Smout and Ari Rabinovitch

(Reuters) – The Delta variant is the fastest, fittest and most formidable version of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 the world has encountered, and it is upending assumptions about the disease even as nations loosen restrictions and open their economies, according to virologists and epidemiologists.

Vaccine protection remains very strong against severe disease and hospitalizations caused by any version of the coronavirus, and those most at risk are still the unvaccinated, according to interviews with 10 leading COVID-19 experts.

But evidence is mounting that the Delta variant, first identified in India, is capable of infecting fully vaccinated people at a greater rate than previous versions, and concerns have been raised that they may even spread the virus, these experts said.

As a result, targeted use of masks, social distancing and other measures may again be needed even in countries with broad vaccination campaigns, several of them said.

Israel recently reinstated mask-wearing requirements indoors and requires travelers to quarantine upon arrival.

U.S. officials are considering whether to revise mask guidance for the vaccinated. Los Angeles County, the most populous in the United States, is again requiring masks even among the vaccinated in indoor public spaces.

“The biggest risk to the world at the moment is simply Delta,” said microbiologist Sharon Peacock, who runs Britain’s efforts to sequence the genomes of coronavirus variants, calling it the “fittest and fastest variant yet.”

Viruses constantly evolve through mutation, with new variants arising. Sometimes these are more dangerous than the original.

The major worry about the Delta variant is not that it makes people sicker, but that it spreads far more easily from person to person, increasing infections and hospitalizations among the unvaccinated.

Public Health England said on Friday that of a total of 3,692 people hospitalized in Britain with the Delta variant, 58.3% were unvaccinated and 22.8% were fully vaccinated.

In Singapore, where Delta is the most common variant, government officials reported on Friday that three quarters of its coronavirus cases occurred among vaccinated individuals, though none were severely ill.

Israeli health officials have said 60% of current hospitalized COVID-19 cases are in vaccinated people. Most of them are age 60 or older and often have underlying health problems.

In the United States, which has experienced more COVID-19 cases and deaths than any other country, the Delta variant represents about 83% of new infections. So far, unvaccinated people represent nearly 97% of severe cases.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, said many vaccinated people are “so disappointed” that they are not 100% protected from mild infections. But the fact that nearly all Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 right now are unvaccinated “is pretty astounding effectiveness,” she said.

‘TEACHING US A LESSON’

“There is always the illusion that there is a magic bullet that will solve all our problems. The coronavirus is teaching us a lesson,” said Nadav Davidovitch, director of Ben Gurion University’s school of public health in Israel.

The Pfizer Inc/BioNTech vaccine, one of the most effective against COVID-19 so far, appeared only 41% effective at halting symptomatic infections in Israel over the past month as the Delta variant spread, according to Israeli government data. Israeli experts said this information requires more analysis before conclusions can be drawn.

“Protection for the individual is very strong; protection for infecting others is significantly lower,” Davidovitch said.

A study in China found that people infected with the Delta variant carry 1,000 times more virus in their noses compared with the original version first identified in Wuhan in 2019.

“You may actually excrete more virus and that’s why it’s more transmissible. That’s still being investigated,” Peacock said.

Virologist Shane Crotty of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego noted that Delta is 50% more infectious than the Alpha variant first detected in the UK.

“It’s outcompeting all other viruses because it just spreads so much more efficiently,” Crotty said.

Genomics expert Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, noted that Delta infections have a shorter incubation period and a far higher amount of viral particles.

“That’s why the vaccines are going to be challenged. The people who are vaccinated have got to be especially careful. This is a tough one,” Topol said.

In the United States, the Delta variant has taken hold just as many Americans – vaccinated and not – have stopped wearing masks indoors.

“It’s a double whammy,” Topol said. “The last thing you want is to loosen restrictions when you’re confronting the most formidable version of the virus yet.”

The development of highly effective vaccines may have led many people to believe that once vaccinated, COVID-19 posed little threat to them.

“When the vaccines were first developed, nobody was thinking that they were going to prevent infection,” said Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine and infectious disease epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta. The aim was always to prevent severe disease and death, del Rio added.

The vaccines were so effective, however, that there were signs they also prevented transmission against prior coronavirus variants.

“We got spoiled,” he said.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago, Alistair Smout in London, Ari Rabinovitch and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Will Dunham and Bill Berkrot)

Israel sees drop in Pfizer vaccine protection against infections, still strong in severe illness

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel reported on Monday a decrease in the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in preventing infections and symptomatic illness but said it remained highly effective in preventing serious illness.

The decline coincided with the spread of the Delta variant and the end of social distancing restrictions in Israel.

Vaccine effectiveness in preventing both infection and symptomatic disease fell to 64% since June 6, the Health Ministry said. At the same time the vaccine was 93% effective in preventing hospitalizations and serious illness from the coronavirus.

The ministry in its statement did not say what the previous level was or provide any further details. However ministry officials published a report in May that two doses of Pfizer’s vaccine provided more than 95% protection against infection, hospitalization and severe illness.

A Pfizer spokesperson declined to comment on the data from Israel, but cited other research showing that antibodies elicited by the vaccine were still able to neutralize all tested variants, including Delta, albeit at reduced strength.

About 60% of Israel’s 9.3 million population have received at least one shot of Pfizer’s vaccine in a campaign that saw daily cases drop from more than 10,000 in January to single digits last month.

This spurred Israel to drop nearly all social distancing as well as the requirement to wear masks, though the latter was partially reimposed in recent days. At the same time Delta, which has become a globally dominant variant of the coronavirus, began to spread.

Since then daily cases have gradually risen, reaching 343 on Sunday. The number of seriously ill rose to 35 from 21.

Data scientist Eran Segal of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science said the country was unlikely to experience the high levels of hospitalizations seen earlier in the year since there were much fewer critically ill.

He said it was fine to “continue with life back to normal and without restrictions” while stepping up measures like vaccination outreach and ensuring testing for Israelis returning home from abroad.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Maayan Lubell, Editing by William Maclean)

Belgian university city hopes circles will encourage social distancing

By Bart Biesemans

GHENT, Belgium (Reuters) – The Belgian city of Ghent has struggled to persuade its large student population to stick to social distancing rules during the pandemic, but the authorities hope they have found a solution at least to keep outside gatherings under control.

The city, home to some 80,000 students, has painted 100 large, white circles on the ground in St Peter’s Square at the heart of the student district, and in nearby parks over the past month, an effort reinforced after partying there last week led to clashes with police.

Ghent mayor Mathias De Clercq said the students themselves had come up with the idea, but stressed that, while Belgian COVID rules limit groups meeting outdoors to four people, it was not mandatory for a group to sit in a circle.

“Everyone is free to use them or not,” he told Reuters television. “It’s a nice example of nudging, a gentle push towards good behavior.”

The circles are 6 meters (19 feet 8 inches) in diameter and 4 meters apart.

Students seemed reasonably content with the system as they sat out in the sunshine this week.

“In these harsh times, it’s not very easy to meet people and to socialize with your friends. So I think it’s a good solution. It looks a little bit weird, but it’s effective,” said 20-year-old engineering student Elian Colpaert.

Law student Kato Pion said some had complained the authorities were treating them like infants, but thought the circles were a good idea.

“But I think it is actually good that we are given the freedom to sit on the square, of course according to the rules,” she said.

(Writing by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Disneyland theme parks in California to reopen April 30

(Reuters) – Walt Disney Co’s two theme parks in California will reopen on April 30 to a limited number of guests, the company said on Wednesday, over a year after they closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Attendance will initially be capped at roughly 15% of capacity, Disney Chief Executive Bob Chapek said on CNBC television.

Advance reservations and an admission ticket will be required for entry. Guests age 2 and up will need to wear masks, except when eating, drinking or swimming, and follow other safety measures including temperature checks before entering and social distancing on rides and throughout the parks.

Under state guidelines, capacity may increase if the prevalence of coronavirus in the area continues to fall.

The Disneyland Resort, located in Anaheim 35 miles southeast of Los Angeles, closed in mid-March of 2020. The resort includes the original Disneyland, nicknamed “The Happiest Place on Earth,” and the adjacent California Adventure theme parks.

Florida’s Walt Disney World parks reopened to visitors in July 2020 and Disney officials had been urging the state of California to ease reopening restrictions.

(Reporting by Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles and Eva Mathews in Bengaluru; Editing by Richard Chang and Steve Orlofsky)

India virus infections at three-week high, Mumbai hires marshals to enforce mask-wearing

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India reported on Friday its biggest jump in new coronavirus infections in three weeks, with 13,193 cases, while thousands of marshals fanned out to enforce mask wearing across the financial capital of Mumbai, which is battling a recent spurt.

The tally of confirmed infections is 10.96 million, the second highest after the United States, with more than 156,000 deaths. But actual infections could range as high as 300 million, a government serological survey showed this month.

In recent days, 75% of India’s new cases have been reported from the southern state of Kerala and Maharashtra, home to Mumbai, a densely populated city of 20 million people. The two states already had the highest number of reported infections.

Health experts suggest the re-opening of educational institutes in Kerala and resumption of suburban train services in Mumbai could be key factors.

After a gap of 11 months, Mumbai resumed on Feb. 1 full suburban train services, which before the pandemic carried a daily average of 8 million people.

The city has begun hiring marshals to enforce mask wearing. Out of nearly 5,000 marshals, around 300 would be deployed on the rail network, city authorities said.

Indians have largely given up on masks and social distancing, Reuters reporting shows.

“Coronavirus … has not yet left the country,” the health ministry said on Twitter. “We still need to follow COVID-appropriate behavior. No carelessness till there is a cure.”

Despite the recent rise in infections, India’s daily tally of new cases remains well below a mid-September peak of nearly 100,000. Testing numbers have also fallen to about 800,000 a day from more than 1 million.

Since starting its vaccine campaign in mid-January, India has administered nearly 10 million doses, aiming to cover 300 million people by August.

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das and Anuron Kumar Mitra; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Fed says Powell has been working from home, observing mask and distance protocols

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell has been working from home while also following masking and social distancing protocols when in public, and has not felt it necessary to take a coronavirus test, the Fed said Friday in response to inquiries following the news that President Donald Trump has contracted COVID-19.

A Fed spokesperson said in addition that Powell had not been in contact with anyone known to have tested positive for the virus.

Fed officials have been working remotely since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but Powell has traveled occasionally to Capitol Hill, most recently last week, for hearings on Fed policy and the response to the health crisis.

He typically has worn a mask during those appearances, and Fed officials in general have urged people to do the same as a way to tamp the spread of the disease and allow economic activity to safely resume.

News that Trump, first lady Melania Trump, and others had been infected with the coronavirus touched off a wave of announcements from other officials about their health status.

Powell has met infrequently with Trump during his time as Fed chair, though he has been holding frequent talks during the crisis with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. A Treasury spokesperson said Friday Mnuchin had tested negative.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

CDC asks Americans to avoid trick-or-treating, indoor Halloween parties

(Reuters) – Americans should avoid door-to-door trick-or-treating, attending crowded and indoor parties, and wearing costume masks this Halloween to prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. health agency said that many traditional Halloween activities could be high-risk for spreading viruses and outlined several safer, alternative ways to participate in a note on holiday celebrations.

The guidance comes after new COVID-19 cases in the United States rose last week for the first time after falling for eight straight weeks, an increase that health experts attributed to schools reopening and parties over the Labor Day holiday.

The health agency also said activities like attending haunted house settings, consuming alcohol or drugs and attending the fall festival that is outside one’s community were high risk and should be avoided.

CDC advised one-way trick-or-treating where participants are six feet apart and wearing Halloween-themed cloth masks.

Other low-risk activities include carving pumpkins and decorating one’s home, outdoor scavenger hunts and parties, virtual costume contests and hosting a movie night with household members.

The health agency recommended tailoring all Halloween activities based on whether coronavirus infections were spiking in a given area, adding that the new guidelines are not meant to replace any local or state mandates on the pandemic.

For Thanksgiving, CDC advised against long distance travel, attending crowded parades and going shopping in crowded shops.

(Reporting By Mrinalika Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber)

New York pushes ahead with more reopenings as COVID-19 cases rise in U.S. Midwest

By Maria Caspani and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced more reopenings in New York state as new coronavirus infections remained low in what was once the U.S. hot spot of the pandemic.

Next Wednesday, New York City malls will be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity and casinos statewide can reopen at 25% capacity, Cuomo said.

“Thanks to the hard work of New Yorkers, we are at a point in our fight against this virus where we can safely reopen malls in New York City as long as they adhere to strict health and safety protocols,” Cuomo said. “Masks, enhanced air ventilation systems, and social distancing will be mandatory.”

The governor also waded into the hotly debated issue of indoor dining in New York City, saying during a conference call with reporters that the final decision rested with the state.

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson came out on Wednesday in favor of allowing indoor dining in the city, which is home to a thriving restaurant industry that was battered by the pandemic.

“It’s time to allow indoor dining in New York City with reduced capacity and clear guidance to ensure social distancing and safety,” Johnson said in a statement.

Cuomo said he would like to see restaurants reopen for indoor dining in the city but that compliance and enforcement remained a major hurdle in doing so.

“We open restaurants, that’s going to complicate by the hundreds if not thousands the number of establishments that need to be monitored,” he said.

Indoor dining is allowed in New York state with the exception of New York City, where more than 300 restaurateurs recently filed a class-action lawsuit seeking $2 billion in damages, according to media reports.

On Wednesday, gyms in New York City opened for the first time in months. They must operate at 33% capacity, with floors rearranged so patrons can exercise more than 6 feet (1.8 m) apart.

SHIFTING TRENDS

New York has seen by far the most deaths from COVID-19 of any U.S. state, more than 32,000, but its rate of new infections has dropped to among the lowest in the country.

Nationally, new cases of coronavirus have fallen for six weeks in a row, but infections are surging in the Midwest. Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota are reporting the highest percentage of positive test results in the country – over 20% in each state.

Iowa, with a population of more than 3.1 million people, saw over 8,300 new cases last week, up 116%. That compared with about 4,400 new cases in New York state, which has more than 19.4 million residents, according to a Reuters analysis.

Cases also rose 27% last week in Minnesota and 34% in Indiana.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told state officials to prepare to distribute a potential coronavirus vaccine as early as October, according to documents made public by the agency on Wednesday.

The vaccines would be given first to healthcare workers, national security personnel and nursing homes, the agency said in the documents.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely in New York and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Trump White House restarts tours, with pandemic restrictions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration will restart tours of the White House on Sept. 12 with new restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, according to an announcement released on Tuesday.

Tours at the usually bustling White House complex, where Trump lives and works, were suspended after COVID-19 began spreading throughout the country. At the same time, some White House officials have tested positive for the disease, which has killed more than 180,000 people in the United States, and media organizations have limited the number of journalists showing up each day.

On Thursday, though, Trump opened the White House to more of the public, hosting the last night of his Republican party’s national convention on its South Lawn. He gave his renomination acceptance speech in front of more than 1,000 people sitting close together, most of them without face coverings.

The resumed public tours will only take place on Friday and Saturday mornings, with roughly a fifth of the usual number of guests allowed in.

Guests must wear face coverings and follow dots on the floor to remain socially distant when they check in. Federal employees along the self-guided tour route will wear face coverings and gloves, and hand sanitizer will be available, according to the announcement.

The White House has generally welcomed the public, but access has been reduced over the years to protect its residents. Famously, President Andrew Jackson, who has served as an inspiration for Trump, hosted 20,000 people for his Inauguration Day party in 1829, serving whiskey in bathtubs on the lawn. Since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, visitors have had to reserve tours months in advance through a member of Congress and undergo background checks.

Public tours of the Library of Congress and the U.S. Capitol remain suspended, according to their websites.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Proportion of youth with COVID-19 triples in five months: WHO

By Ankur Banerjee and Stephanie Nebehay

(Reuters) – Young people who are hitting nightclubs and beaches are leading a rise in fresh coronavirus cases across the world, with the proportion of those aged 15 to 24 who are infected rising three-fold in about five months, the World Health Organization said.

An analysis by the WHO of 6 million infections between Feb. 24 and July 12 found that the share of people aged 15-24 years rose to 15% from 4.5%.

Apart from the United States which leads a global tally with 4.8 million total cases, European countries including Spain, Germany and France, and Asian countries such as Japan, have said that many of the newly infected are young people.

“Younger people tend to be less vigilant about masking and social distancing,” Neysa Ernst, nurse manager at Johns Hopkins Hospital’s biocontainment unit in Baltimore, Maryland told Reuters in an email.

“Travel increases your chances of getting and spreading COVID-19,” she said, adding young people are more likely to go to work in the community, to a beach or the pub, or to buy groceries.

The surge in new cases, a so-called second wave of infections, has prompted some countries to impose new curbs on travel even as companies race to find a vaccine for the fast-spreading virus that has claimed more than 680,000 lives and upended economies.

Even countries such as Vietnam, widely praised for its mitigation efforts since the coronavirus appeared in late January, are battling new clusters of infection.

Among those aged 5-14 years, about 4.6% were infected, up from 0.8%, between Feb. 24 and July 12, the WHO said, at a time when testing has risen and public health experts are concerned that reopening of schools may lead to a surge in cases.

Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. expert on infectious diseases, urged young people last month to continue to socially distance, wear masks and avoid crowds, and cautioned that asymptomatic people could spread the virus, too.

Indeed, health experts in several countries have urged similar measures as they report that infected youth show few symptoms.

“We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: young people are not invincible,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news briefing in Geneva last week.

“Young people can be infected; young people can die; and young people can transmit the virus to others.”

Last month, Tokyo officials said they would conduct coronavirus testing in the city’s nightlife districts, and instructed nightclubs to provide customers with enough space with good ventilation and to ask them to avoid speaking loudly.

In France last month, authorities shut down a bar where people breached hygiene rules and caused an outbreak.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru and Stephanie Ulmer-Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Sayantani Ghosh and Bernadette Baum)