Spread of Delta variant across EU raises concern over summer opening

Race to vaccinate as strain that emerged in India takes hold in UK and Portugal, and shuts schools in Israel

Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation, responding to a question from The Irish Times, has warned that the Delta variant of Covid-19 "will pick off the more vulnerable more efficiently." Video: WHO


Countries across Europe are watching the advance of the Delta variant of Covid-19 with increasing concern as the more infectious strain drives fresh surges and threatens to scupper summer reopening plans.

Across the continent health authorities are racing to administer vaccines faster than the variant can spread, warning that health precautions like outdoor activities, masks and distancing are still essential to curb the spread as large numbers of people remain vulnerable to serious disease and death.

“This particular Delta variant is faster, it is fitter, it will pick off the more vulnerable more efficiently than previous variants,” World Health Organisation (WHO) executive director Mike Ryan told a press briefing in response to a question from The Irish Times.

It took weeks for the variant first detected in India to become the dominant strain in the UK, where it now accounts for 90 per cent of infections. It is blamed for a rapid spread among the unvaccinated and the young that saw 9,055 new infections in a day last week, the highest level since February.

This rise and more hospitalisations led the UK government to delay a planned easing of restrictions by a month to allow more time for vaccinators to reach roughly half of the population who had yet to receive second or first jabs, after modelling indicated that the death toll of 128,000 was at risk of rising by thousands more.

Banned travel

In Portugal, which opened up travel with the UK in May, the Delta variant has also driven cases to their highest level in four months. It now accounts for 60 per cent of infections in Lisbon, and authorities banned travel in and out of the capital for three days to curb the spread, with police stopping cars around the city to ask drivers their reason for travel.

In Ireland, 20 per cent of Covid-19 infections detected in the past week are estimated to be of the Delta variant, according to chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan, which is a similar level to Luxembourg.

Variant trackers show the strain is on the rise in Germany, Italy, Spain and Belgium, which banned travellers from Britain from entering the country for almost any reason in response to fears over the variant.

“If measures are relaxed too soon also for non-vaccinated people, then we may see a rapid rise in cases again,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control director Andrea Ammon warned last week.

German health minister Jens Spahn urged citizens not to travel to London for the final of the Euro 2020 tournament, warning that if Germany saw a similar increase as Britain it would call into question the easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

“Vaccinate, take precautions, test. This is what can make it possible to bring the number of infections down further, and to keep them there throughout the summer,” Mr Spahn told journalists.

Ramped up

The pace of vaccination has ramped up across the EU, and many countries have roughly 30 per cent of their population fully vaccinated. However, pockets of vulnerable people remain unreached, and a vaccination level of 70 per cent is needed to bring the pandemic to an end, according to the WHO.

In Israel, where about 60 per cent of the population is vaccinated, two schools were shut last week after dozens of students tested positive for the Delta variant, leading the government to urge parents to get their teenagers vaccinated.

Studies indicate that fully vaccinated people are well protected against all variants, but that those who have received only one dose have less protection against the Delta strain than its predecessors.

“This is the race we’re in,” said Dr Ryan. “It’s like picking a combination lock. Some of the viruses have picked some of the numbers. We have a very, very short window of time to get our most vulnerable protected, and we haven’t done it yet.”