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How the Delta variant upends assumptions about the coronavirus

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A youth receives a vaccination against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a mobile vaccination centre, as Israel continues to fight against the spread of the Delta variant, in Tel Aviv, Israel July 6, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo
Hospital staff do an X-ray of the lung of a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Hospital del Mar, where an additional ward has been opened to deal with an increase in coronavirus patients in Barcelona, Spain July 15, 2021. REUTERS/Nacho Doce/File Photo

The Delta variant is the fastest, fittest and most formidable version of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 the world has encountered, and it is upending assumptions about the disease even as nations loosen restrictions and open their economies, according to virologists and epidemiologists, write Julie Steenhuysen, Alistair Smout and Ari Rabinovitch.

Vaccine protection remains very strong against severe infections and hospitalizations caused by any version of the coronavirus, and those most at risk are still the unvaccinated, according to interviews with 10 leading COVID-19 experts.

The major worry about the Delta variant, first identified in India, is not that it makes people sicker, but that it spreads far more easily from person to person, increasing infections and hospitalizations among the unvaccinated.

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Evidence is also mounting that it is capable of infecting fully vaccinated people at a greater rate than previous versions, and concerns have been raised that they may even spread the virus, these experts said.

"The biggest risk to the world at the moment is simply Delta," said microbiologist Sharon Peacock, who runs Britain's efforts to sequence the genomes of coronavirus variants, calling it the "fittest and fastest variant yet."

Viruses constantly evolve through mutation, with new variants arising. Sometimes these are more dangerous than the original.

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Until there is more data on Delta variant transmission, disease experts say that masks, social distancing and other measures set aside in countries with broad vaccination campaigns may again be needed.

Public Health England said on Friday that out of a total of 3,692 people hospitalized in Britain with the Delta variant, 58.3% were unvaccinated and 22.8% were fully vaccinated.

In Singapore, where Delta is the most common variant, government officials reported on Friday (23 July) that three quarters of its coronavirus cases occurred among vaccinated individuals, though none were severely ill.

Israeli health officials have said 60% of current hospitalized COVID cases are in vaccinated people. Most of them are age 60 or older and often have underlying health problems.

In the United States, which has experienced more COVID-19 cases and deaths than any other country, the Delta variant represents about 83% of new infections. So far, unvaccinated people represent nearly 97% of severe cases.

"There is always the illusion that there is a magic bullet that will solve all our problems. The coronavirus is teaching us a lesson," said Nadav Davidovitch, director of Ben Gurion University's school of public health in Israel.

The Pfizer Inc (PFE.N)/BioNTech vaccine, one of the most effective against COVID-19 so far, appeared only 41% effective at halting symptomatic infections in Israel over the past month as the Delta variant spread, according to Israeli government data. Israeli experts said this information requires more analysis before conclusions can be drawn.

"Protection for the individual is very strong; protection for infecting others is significantly lower," Davidovitch said.

A study in China found that people infected with the Delta variant carry 1,000 times more virus in their noses compared with the ancestral Wuhan strain first identified in that Chinese city in 2019.

"You may actually excrete more virus and that's why it's more transmissible. That's still being investigated," Peacock said.

Virologist Shane Crotty of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology in San Diego noted that Delta is 50% more infectious than the Alpha variant first detected in the UK.

"It's outcompeting all other viruses because it just spreads so much more efficiently," Crotty added.

Genomics expert Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, noted that Delta infections have a shorter incubation period and a far higher amount of viral particles.

"That's why the vaccines are going to be challenged. The people who are vaccinated have got to be especially careful. This is a tough one," Topol said.

In the United States, the Delta variant has arrived as many Americans - vaccinated and not - have stopped wearing masks indoors.

"It's a double whammy," Topol said. "The last thing you want is to loosen restrictions when you're confronting the most formidable version of the virus yet."

The development of highly effective vaccines may have led many people to believe that once vaccinated, COVID-19 posed little threat to them.

"When the vaccines were first developed, nobody was thinking that they were going to prevent infection," said Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine and infectious disease epidemiology at Emory University in Atlanta. The aim was always to prevent severe disease and death, del Rio added.

The vaccines were so effective, however, that there were signs the vaccines also prevented transmission against prior coronavirus variants.

"We got spoiled," del Rio said.

Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of California, San Francisco, said, "People are so disappointed right now that they're not 100% protected from mild breakthroughs" - getting infected despite having been vaccinated.

But, Gandhi added, the fact that nearly all Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 right now are unvaccinated "is pretty astounding effectiveness".

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Commission approves €1.8 million Latvian scheme to support cattle farmers affected by the coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €1.8 million Latvian scheme to support farmers active in the cattle-breeding sector affected by the coronavirus outbreak. The scheme was approved under the State Aid Temporary Framework. Under the scheme, the aid will take the form of direct grants. The measure aims at mitigating the liquidity shortages that the beneficiaries are facing and at addressing part of the losses they incurred due to the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictive measures that the Latvian government had to implement to limit the spread of the virus. The Commission found that the scheme is in line with the conditions of the Temporary Framework.

In particular, the aid (i) will not exceed €225,000 per beneficiary; and (ii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2021. The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the scheme under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.64541 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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Commission approves €500,000 Portuguese scheme to further support the passenger transport sector in Azores in the context of the coronavirus outbreak

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The European Commission has approved a €500,000 Portuguese scheme to further support the passenger transport sector in the Region of the Azores in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The measure was approved under the State Aid Temporary Framework. It follows another Portuguese scheme to support the passenger transport sector in Azores that the Commission approved on 4 June 2021 (SA.63010). Under the new scheme, the aid will take the form of direct grants. The measure will be open to collective passenger transport companies of all sizes active in the Azores. The purpose of the measure is to mitigate the sudden liquidity shortages that these companies are facing and to address losses incurred over 2021 due to the coronavirus outbreak and the restrictive measures that the government had to implement to limit the spread of the virus.

The Commission found that the Portuguese scheme is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, the aid (i) will not exceed €1.8 million per company; and (ii) will be granted no later than 31 December 2021. The Commission concluded that the measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of a member state, in line with Article 107(3)(b) TFEU and the conditions of the Temporary Framework. On this basis, the Commission approved the measure under EU state aid rules. More information on the Temporary Framework and other actions taken by the Commission to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here. The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.64599 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved.

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Commission authorizes French aid scheme of €3 billion to support, through loans and equity investments, companies affected by the coronavirus pandemic

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The European Commission has cleared, under EU state aid rules, France's plans to set up a € 3 billion fund that will invest through debt instruments and equity and hybrid instruments in companies affected by the pandemic. The measure was authorized under the Temporary State Aid Framework. The scheme will be implemented through a fund, titled 'Transition Fund for Businesses Affected by the COVID-19 Pandemic', with a budget of € 3bn.

Under this scheme, support will take the form of (i) subordinated or participating loans; and (ii) recapitalization measures, in particular hybrid capital instruments and non-voting preferred shares. The measure is open to companies established in France and present in all sectors (except the financial sector), which were viable before the coronavirus pandemic and which have demonstrated the long-term viability of their economic model. Between 50 and 100 companies are expected to benefit from this scheme. The Commission considered that the measures complied with the conditions set out in the temporary framework.

The Commission concluded that the measure was necessary, appropriate and proportionate to remedy a serious disturbance in the economy of France, in accordance with Article 107 (3) (b) TFEU and the conditions set out in the temporary supervision. On this basis, the Commission authorized these schemes under EU state aid rules.

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Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager (pictured), competition policy, said: “This €3bn recapitalization scheme will allow France to support companies affected by the coronavirus pandemic by facilitating their access funding in these difficult times. We continue to work closely with member states to find practical solutions to mitigate the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic while respecting EU regulations.”

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