WHO warns that the Delta coronavirus variant is the ‘fittest’ strain yet and will ‘pick off’ the most vulnerable people

A nurse putting on protective gear.
A nurse putting on protective gear before tending to a COVID-19 patient in Essen, Germany. Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images
  • The Delta coronavirus variant is on track to become the dominant strain in many nations.
  • WHO officials on Monday said the variant was “faster” and “fitter” than previously identified ones.
  • “It will pick off the more vulnerable more efficiently than previous variants,” Dr. Mike Ryan said.
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World Health Organization officials said Monday that the Delta coronavirus variant was the fastest-moving and “fittest” variant to date, with the ability to find and kill the weakest people.

At a Monday news conference, Dr. Mike Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s health-emergencies program, said Delta had the potential “to be more lethal because it’s more efficient in the way it transmits between humans,” according to CNBC.

He said the Delta variant “will eventually find those vulnerable individuals who will become severely ill, have to be hospitalized, and potentially die.”

“This particular Delta variant is faster, it is fitter, it will pick off the more vulnerable more efficiently than previous variants, and therefore if there are people left without vaccination, they remain even at further risk,” Ryan added, according to CNBC.

Funeral pyres in India.
Funeral pyres for COVID-19 victims in India, where the Delta variant was first identified. Altaf Qadri/AP

WHO is asking wealthier nations to help slow the spread of the Delta variant by donating more vaccines to poorer countries.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said Monday that the Delta variant had spread to 92 countries, CNBC reports.

“Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the vaccines in the right places to protect people’s lives,” she said.

The Delta variant was first identified in India, which experienced a devastating surge in cases and deaths last month.

The WHO officials said Delta was on track to become the dominant strain worldwide. It recently eclipsed the Alpha variant as the dominant strain in the UK, and it is poised to do the same in the US, where the Financial Times estimated it made up 31% of new cases as of Wednesday.

Last month, the Delta variant was labeled a “variant of concern,” meaning it was considered likely to be more transmissible, more deadly, and more impervious to vaccination.

Delta appears to be 60% more transmissible than the Alpha variant, which was already 50% more transmissible than the original coronavirus strain.

Data from the UK – where Delta is thought to account for 90% of new cases – also suggests the risk of hospitalization is higher for Delta sufferers.

Delta also appears to be less protected against by partial vaccinations. Research indicates that one shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Oxford University-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccines give just 33% protection against symptomatic Delta cases, compared with 88% against other variants. Two doses of these vaccines have been found to protect much better against hospitalization for the variant, however.