June 14, 2021

News in Charts: Combating the threat of more transmissible variants

by Fathom Consulting.

While the economic backdrop has improved markedly in recent months and quarters, the threat from COVID-19 has not gone away. The wave of new cases brought about by the Delta variant in India and neighbouring countries may be past its peak there, but the variant has now spread well beyond India, with the WHO tracking cases reported by 62 countries. Estimates suggest that the variant is 40% more transmissible than the Alpha variant (first identified in the UK) which itself is thought to be 40–70% more transmissible than the original strain of Sars-CoV-2 — although there are large confidence margins around these estimates. If correct, other countries — particularly those with low vaccination rates — risk facing similar large spikes. However, there is a question about why cases in India and neighbouring countries have fallen so sharply. There are no obvious reasons precisely why cases in India and Nepal have dropped as they have. Given the low vaccination levels there it seems probable that non-pharmaceutical interventions such as lockdowns and curfews along with voluntary social distancing have each played a role.

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The Delta variant has quickly become the primary strain of new cases in the UK, and cases numbers have risen sharply in recent weeks, although the available evidence shows that vaccines are effective against it. There have been a handful of hotspots of the Delta variant in the UK which have experienced new, localised waves. In Bolton and Blackburn, new cases have risen to levels last seen during the second wave around the New Year. However, deaths have remained low, which can be largely attributed to the vaccine rollout. Over 40% of the UK population has been fully vaccinated, and nearly 60% has received a first dose. Meanwhile, the UK health secretary Matt Hancock has said that of the 126 people admitted to hospital with the Delta variant, 83 were unvaccinated, 28 had had one jab, and just three had had both doses. This seems to bear out a Public Health England study that showed reduced protection against the Delta variant after one jab, but strong efficacy after two.[1]

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If the vaccines work, even against this new variant, this leads to an important question: how long will it take for countries to vaccinate their populations? Based on the current rate of new vaccinations, most advanced economies will have provided at least one dose of vaccine to their adult population by the end of the year. However, if existing estimates of increased transmissibility prove to be correct, that may not be quick enough for many to avoid resurgences in the virus. Moreover, many more countries lag even further behind that schedule. Even the more aggressive plan set to be announced by Boris Johnson at the G7 summit, for global vaccinations to be completed by end-2022, does not appear sufficiently bold. Before, it was a race of vaccines against variants, but with a new, more transmissible strain the race has turned into a sprint.

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As long as countries remain at high risk of large outbreaks, it is not only public health that is threatened. There are key economies in the global supply chain, particularly in Asia, that have low vaccination rates. These countries have largely avoided the worst outcomes during the pandemic so far, having broadly adopted the strategy of closing borders and placing heavy restrictions on travellers to keep the virus out. However, with more transmissible variants of concern now in global circulation, these policies may be put to the test — with potentially global economic ramifications.

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[1] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/990089/Vaccine_surveillance_report_-_week_20.pdf 

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