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Coronavirus: How much is the Delta variant spreading in Italy?

Photo: Gianluca CHININEA / AFP
As a new study estimated that Italy ranks fifth in the world for the spread of Delta coronavirus variant, an Italian virologist has predicted that the strain is set to become 'dominant' in the country.

Contrary to the Italian health authorities’ recent evaluation that the Delta variant is rare in the country, new data analysis appears to show that the strain of coronavirus first identified in India in late 2020 now actually accounts for more than a quarter of Italy’s cases.

Some 26 percent of the country’s cases can be attributed to Delta, according to an international report by the Financial Times together with data from Belgian research institute Sciensano, based on figures from the virus-variant tracking database Gisaid

That’s a stark difference from the 1 percent estimated in the latest report from the Italian national Higher Health Institute (ISS) – which also included cases known to be caused by the similar Kappa strain, likewise first detected in India.

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“The Delta variant of Sars-CoV-2 is set to become dominant in Italy. If what the British said is true, that it has a higher transmission index, it is clear that it has a competitive advantage and will therefore expand,” Andrea Crisanti, director of molecular medicine at the University of Padua, told news agency Adnkronos on Monay.

The report places Italy fifth in the world for the share of cases driven by the spread of Delta, coming behind the UK, where the concentration of cases is 98 percent, followed by Portugal, Russia and the US.

While the new strain still only accounts for a fraction of the total coronavirus cases in mainland Europe, “it is gaining ground”, stated the analysis.

Although having reported much more conservative figures, the ISS noted that “there has been a recent increase in the frequency and spread of such reports within the country.” 

ISS head Silvio Brusaferro stated: “Outbreaks of variants, such as Delta, with greater transmissibility and/or the potential to evade immune response have been reported in Italy as well. More vaccine coverage and completion of vaccination cycles is essential to prevent resurgence.”

So far, concern about Delta has prompted the Italian government to reinstate a mandatory quarantine and testing for travellers from the UK, amid growing concern over the strain.

Italy had already banned travel from India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka due to concerns about the spread of variants.

TRAVEL: How many flights are still available between the UK and Italy?

Elsewhere in Europe, the spread of the Delta variant has prompted the British government to delay easing restrictions as planned, and France has warned that the same number of cases are being reported now as the UK did a few weeks ago.

In Spain, health experts have predicted that the Delta variant will become dominant within a month. Meanwhile in Germany, doctors are urging people to avoid travel to places particularly affected by the strain.

Delta variant ‘more transmissible’

“Based on available scientific evidence, the Delta variant is more transmissible than other circulating variants and we estimate that by the end of August it will represent 90% of all SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in the European Union,” stated Dr. Andrea Ammon, ECDC Director

“Unfortunately, preliminary data shows that it can also infect individuals that have received only one dose of the currently available vaccines. It is very likely that the Delta variant will circulate extensively during the summer, particularly among younger individuals that are not targeted for vaccination,

“This could cause a risk for the more vulnerable individuals to be infected and experience severe illness and death if they are not fully vaccinated.”

“The good news is that having received two doses of any of the currently available vaccines provides high protection against this variant and its consequences. However, about 30% of individuals older than 80 years and about 40% of individuals older than 60 years have not yet received a full vaccination course in the European Union.”

In the UK, where the first cases were recorded in February, the Delta variant has superseded the Alpha variant, first detected in Kent, England.

This itself is believed to be 43-90 percent more transmissible than early strains, according to a study by Science magazine.

Portugal and Russia are also seeing increased spread of the Delta variant, while the circulation of the Alpha strain gradually declines.

This trend hasn’t yet been recorded in Italy, the US, Belgium and Germany, where the Alpha variant still seems to be the decisively prevalent one.

The Alpha variant is still highly prevalent over the Delta variant. Source: Financial Times

Some scientists fear the Delta variant may have already spread further than the figures show, according to the FT study, but have “gone undetected given that less of the genomic sequencing needed to identify variants has been completed in mainland Europe”.

The study reported that the UK has sequenced more than 500,000 Sars-Cov-2 genomes, while Germany has sequenced 130,000, followed by France and Spain at 47,000 and 34,000 respectively. No data were given for Italy.

The reason for either vastly differing sequencing figures, or none at all, is that “it’s costly, it’s time consuming and it was neglected,” Antoine Flahault, director of the Institute of Global Health at the University of Geneva, told the newspaper.

Obtaining as many of the variant’s genetic sequences as possible is crucial to tracking the spread of the Delta variant, according to the scientists interviewed.

Genomic sequencing analyses a virus sample taken from a diagnosed patient and compares it with other cases, which allows tracing of outbreaks.

Looking at Gisaid data in comparison with the FT’s projections, the share of Delta cases in Italy currently stands at 7.7 percent. However, this isn’t the full picture as not all laboratories that carry out genomic sequencing share the results in real time in the international database.

Delta’s response to vaccines and impact on symptoms

The rising number of cases has caused concern that this will be a roadblock to the progress made in the EU vaccination rollout, due to how rapidly it spreads and its potential resistance to current vaccines.

According to a study by The Lancet, the Delta variant is responsible for roughly double the risk of hospitalisation compared with the Alpha variant. The findings were based on hospitalisations reported in Scotland over two months.

READ ALSO: EU and AstraZeneca both claim victory after Covid vaccine judgement

After one dose of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine, there is a much lower level of protection against the Delta variant, according to research – just 33 percent for in the case of Pfizer.

However, the latest data from Public Health England suggests that vaccines are more effective against the most serious consequences of the new strain.

The Pfizer vaccine was found to be 96 percent effective against hospitalisation from the Delta variant after two doses, while AstraZeneca’s offered 92 protection. From the first dose, Pfizer was found to be 94 percent effective and AstraZeneca offered 71 percent protection after one shot.

Studies have also found that symptoms from the Delta variant are different, with the most common symptoms reported including headache, followed by a sore throat, runny nose and fever, according to the Covid Symptom Study.

Certain symptoms, such as coughing and loss of smell or taste have almost disappeared, it found.

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