Alarming Covid variant has Victoria on edge

The hunt is on to find the source of a “disturbing” variant of Covid-19 in Victoria.

Authorities confirmed yesterday that the “Delta” strain has been found in seven people in Melbourne — including three children.

Victoria recorded five new locally acquired cases of coronavirus today, with 69 cases now linked to the state’s outbreak.

Authorities will explain the cases in a press conference later today.

The positive cases were detected among more than 36,000 tests.

B. 1.617.2, otherwise known as the Delta strain, is the same coronavirus strain that has decimated India.

It is also a major cause for concern in the United Kingdom.

US-based epidemiologist Eric Feighl-Ding explained the Delta variant was 50-70 per cent more transmissible and patients were 2.7x more likely to be hospitalised than other variants.

He said about 75 per cent of all cases in the UK were the Delta variant.

An urgent search is now underway to find the source in Melbourne after genetic testing showed the strain had infected at least two people in a family of four who travelled to NSW’s Jervis Bay in late May.

Officials have refused the rule out whether the virus could have originated in NSW or regional Victoria.

“It is a variant of significant concern,” Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said on Friday.

“It’s obviously a concern that it is not linked to other cases, but we are chasing down all those primary case contacts.”

Meanwhile NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard hit back at suggestions that Victoria’s new Covid-19 variant may have originated in his state.

Mr Hazzard said there was no evidence the family picked up the variant in NSW.

“I’ll just say it’s a bit unhelpful to go making any statements that could be either interpreted or could be mistakenly interpreted (in that way),” Mr Hazzard told 2GB.

“There is no evidence whatsoever that this family picked up the variant in NSW.

Professor Sharon Lewin from the Doherty Institute told ABC News this morning that there is existing concern over the “Kappa” variation – which has also emerged in Covid-stricken India.

Professor Lewin said both are about “double as infectious” than the UK variant “Alpha”.

“The Delta variant, this new cluster that was reported yesterday, is the dominant in the UK, and they’ve had a little bit of Kappa virus infection,” Professor Lewin began.

“From that country, the data is really good and the genomic sequencing is frequent. We do know that both of those variants are more infectious than the UK variant, which is now called the Alpha variant,” she explained.

“The estimates are that they’re probably about double as infectious. So, for every person that one person would have infected – two people, previously – they’d perhaps infect double that now.”

She added that the severity of illness was “a lot less clear” at present, and currently based on anecdotal reports.

“You really need some very systematic data collection to prove disease severity, and I’m not sure we’ve seen that yet.”

“But the same measures still will work, meaning – test, trace, isolate, masks – all the usual things that we use to stop transmission will still work here,” Professor Lewin said.

What is the Delta variant?

The Delta variant spread extremely rapidly across India to become the predominant variant in that country.

“Indeed almost the exclusive variant there and in surrounding countries — Nepal, Bangladesh (and) Sri Lanka,” Professor Sutton said.

“All are also affected by a significant uptick in cases related to that variant.

Why should we be concerned?

Very high transmissibility potential is the main concern.

There are some anecdotal reports of greater severity of illness in children, as well as the potential increase in transmissibility among children.

“We’ve got concerns for that reason,” Professor Sutton said.

Stuart Turville, from the immunovirology and pathogenesis program at UNSW Sydney’s Kirby Institute, said the number of Delta cases was increasing globally.

“Like what we have seen with Alpha in early 2021, it just means we will see more Delta cases in quarantine and that if there is a breach, it will be highly probable to be that variant,” he said.

What is the key difference between the Delta and Kappa strains?

Authorities say the Delta strain appears to move more quickly at “casual contact” sites.

“I’m not saying it has magical qualities, but we have noticed five exposure sites where transmission has occurred to seven individuals, I believe, who have had less than that usual prolonged indoor home, work, face-to-face settings, or indeed restaurant settings,” Professor Sutton said.

Dr Turville described the Delta strain as the genetic “cousin” to Kappa.

“The key difference is that it has a fitness gain that enables the virus to bind cells better,” he said.

“In the lab under controlled conditions, we do see Delta to be approximately 1.4 times fitter than Kappa.

“While this is a laboratory observation, the displacement of Kappa by Delta in India does support it to be a fitter variant in populations where vaccine immunity is low.”

How do the viruses get their names?

The World Health Organisation recently decided to simplify the virus names with Greek numerals, Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, to avoid stigma.

Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly said this was the third attempt.

“One was where they were first being found, the second was a long series of numbers and letters, which was becoming difficult to remember — even for epidemiologists,” he said.

How the variants respond to vaccines?

When asked about the efficacy of Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines currently being rolled out in Australia against Delta and Kappa, Professor Lewin said data from the UK suggested there was high protection against both.

“We measure effectiveness against the vaccines in two ways. You can use laboratory tests, or see how the vaccine works in practice,” she explained.

“We know a lot about the Delta strain with the vaccine in practice, again from the UK where, after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, 80 per cent protection against symptomatic Covid and, after the AstraZeneca vaccine, 60 per cent protection against symptomatic Covid.

“They haven’t reported the protection against severe disease but, based on other studies, we expect that the protection would be very high against severe disease, which is what we really worry about.”

She added that data surrounding the Kappa variant was not as robust.

– with NCANewsWire

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