As the mutant COVID-19 strain known as "Delta" picks up steam across Europe and the US, one of the WHO's leading doctors has just expressed concern about recent research published in the Lancet showing that the first generation of COVID-19 vaccines aren't as effective at protecting against "Delta".
Answering a question from a reporter during the organization's regular Monday briefing in Geneva, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove said that there is data "showing a reduction in neutralization" for the Delta variant, but not as much as the "Beta" variant - better known as the mutant strain that was first discovered in South Africa.
She continued on, noting that the first generation of vaccines are still highly effective: "Having said that, these vaccines are still highly effective, they produce enough antibodies to protect against serious disease and death. While we are seeing some reduced efficacy, they are still effective at preventing severe disease and death including against the delta variant."
Ultimately, the WHO needs to vaccinate as many people as quickly as possible - which is the goal of Covax, the WHO's program to vaccinate the world - to give dangerous variants less opportunity to take root and spread.
"The goal of Covax is that we need those who are most at risk to severe disease, and those who are most exposed, to receive those vaccines and to be protected," Dr. Kerkhove said.
To learn more about vaccine efficacy, the WHO has been "working with a global network...to get these studies under way...and to look at real-world efficacy data as well." New research is coming in "fast and furious" and WHO is doing everything it can to determine what's relevant and what's not. The agency remains vigilant, however, because they fear that over time a growing number of "double" or "triple" mutants could further erode the efficacy of the first generation of vaccines. What's more, "there may be a time where we have a constellation of mutations that arise in a variant" that will cause vaccines to lose potency entirely.
Readers can watch the entire briefing below. Dr. Kerkhove is asked about the threat posed by mutant strains just before the 1-hour mark:
Recent evidence suggests that the Delta variant, which has prompted concern worldwide, has also led to new surges of COVID in under-vaccinated parts of the US. According to BBG, even as the number of fully vaccinated Americans reaches 150MM, the genomics firm Helix has analyzed about 20K samples from COVID tests across more than 700 American counties and found that cases of the Delta variant appear to be spreading much more quickly in areas with lower vaccination rates than in areas that have higher rates.