Delta variant of COVID-19 explained: how the virus changes to spread faster

Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 5:05 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - We’re learning more about how the Delta Variant of COVID-19 is different and what makes it more contagious. This after weeks of health experts warning of the new, more dangerous variant on the rise, particularly in parts of the country with low vaccination rates.

Health leaders at Aspirus are treating all COVID patients as though they have the more contagious variant, based on data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. I asked him to explain how ‘Delta’ is different, and the answer has to do with how much virus is in one droplet.

“I’m usually tasked with setting up, for example, guidelines for treatment, looking at what should we use, what shouldn’t we use,” explained Tristan O’Driscoll, PharmD, an infectious disease pharmacist who has treated many COVID-19 patients at Aspirus.

He explains that viruses try to put on a costume to be unrecognizable to the body. COVID-19 does that by disguising the outer structures seen jutting out from the center of the virus, called spike proteins.

“A change in that spike protein, that’s going to evade our immune system. It won’t recognize it. If it can evade our immune system, now it can copy itself,” he explained.

Making copies of itself is the virus’ goal. The Delta variant has figured out how to make more copies, faster in a single droplet.

“So only a few days after, you’re seeing these viral copies come out in those droplets that can be spread, and you’re also seeing much higher levels of the virus in those droplets,” O’Driscoll explained.

That’s why the Delta variant is considered a more contagious, intense version of the COVID-19 we saw spreading since the beginning of the pandemic.

“It’s able to spread so quickly and kind of catch us off guard and spread without people knowing,” he said.

But O’Driscoll says no matter which costume the virus puts on, only the vaccine offers some protection against all of them, whereas immunity to one variant means nothing if the body is trying to fight another kind.

“Natural immunity is not going to be as good because your body used to seeing a different spike protein, a different virus,” he said. “People are kind of assuming that, I had it before so I’m good. Which we have seen the vaccines are providing much better and longer-lasting immunity, but as soon as that virus changes, your body is used to seeing a different form of it, and so absolutely that previous exposure is not going to protect you.”

The antibody cocktails and antiviral treatments used to treat COVID-19, given the same ‘emergency use authorization’ from the Food and Drug Administration as the vaccines, still target the disguised virus.

“We’re still maintaining the ability to treat these patients, although very limited—but the stuff we’re using is still working,” he said.

He says they’re constantly evaluated and taken out of practice if they show weaker effectiveness in treating the Delta variant.

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