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WHO warns delta strain poses global risk

The head of the World Health Organization on Friday warned the highly contagious Delta strain of the coronavirus poses a serious risk for the world.

The threat posed by the fast-spreading Delta variant, which first emerged in India last October, has become the main concern at this stage of the pandemic, prompting new travel restrictions and raising alarms around the world.

Still, globally the number of new infections and deaths has remained stable for the past month. In the past week, about 55,233 deaths around the world were linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to Johns Hopkins University data. At the height of peaks in the pandemic last year and in January, more than 90,000 deaths a week were linked to the virus globally.

Infections, too, have fallen to about half the number recorded during those peaks. The pandemic’s official death toll stands at nearly 4 million, but experts believe at least twice as many people have died from the virus.

The fear is that the Delta variant is spreading quickly around the globe and even infecting some people who have been vaccinated. Scientists believe this new strain is 2.5 times more contagious than the first strain that emerged in China in 2019.

“We are in a very dangerous period of this pandemic,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, at a news briefing at the agency’s headquarters in Geneva on Friday.

“The Delta variant is dangerous and is continuing to evolve and mutate,” Tedros said. “Delta has been detected in at least 98 countries and is spreading quickly in countries with low and high vaccination coverage.”

Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, is coming under siege in this Delta strain outbreak. The country is imposing restrictions and ramping up vaccinations as hospitals begin to overflow in the capital Jakarta and elsewhere.

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“No country on earth is out of the woods yet,” Tedros said.

Europe’s celebratory mood — best exemplified by the reappearance of thousands of fans at soccer stadiums where European Championship games are taking place — is being dampened by concerns over the Delta variant.

Like other rich regions of the world, Europe has begun to joyfully reopen societies as vaccination rates rise. In France, Germany and Italy more than 50% of people have received at least one vaccine dose, according to data tracked by Our World in Data, a research group affiliated with the University of Oxford.

But fears are mounting that the Delta variant is spreading among younger people and the unvaccinated in Europe. The strain is also infecting some vaccinated people.

The Delta strain is most prevalent in the United Kingdom, prompting European Union nations to impose new restrictions on British travelers. The U.K., unlike the United States, is not on the EU’s latest safe travel list.

But a new study of health data in the U.K. gives reason to believe that the Delta strain is not causing a worse infection. Despite a sharp rise in new infections in recent weeks, the number of people needing hospitalization is very low, according to data released by Public Health England on Thursday.

Between June 21 and June 27, the weekly hospitalization rate was 1.9 per 100,000 people, a slight increase from a month ago but far lower than last winter when hospitalization rates peaked at more than 35 admissions per 100,000 people. The U.K. has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world with about 66% of the population having received at least one vaccine dose.

On Friday, Tedros renewed his call for richer nations to do more to get vaccines distributed to poorer countries. For months, the WHO has urged richer countries to share their vaccine stockpiles with poorer nations and to lift patent restrictions and other hurdles preventing vaccine production in poorer regions.

“There is now some sharing of vaccines happening, but it is still a trickle, which is being outpaced by variants,” Tedros said. “I have urged leaders across the world to work together to ensure that by this time next year 70% of all people in every country are vaccinated.”

So far, more than 3 billion vaccine doses have been distributed and that shows the pharmaceutical industry has the capacity to produce enough vaccines to get most people around the globe inoculated, he said.

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“This is the best way to slow the pandemic,” he said.

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Scientists believe this new strain is 2.5 times more contagious than the first strain that emerged in China in 2019.