There is still a lot to learn about the delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. Here’s some of what we know now, including why it’s more contagious and how symptoms may differ.
Are young people more sensitive to the delta variant?
The News & Observer reported that children are less likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19, but are at higher risk of spreading the more contagious delta variant. This is because the variant is more likely to spread among those who are not vaccinated – and no vaccine has been approved for children aged 5 to 12 in the United States.
“The people who now receive COVID-19 are largely younger and younger people,” said David Wohl, professor of medicine specializing in infectious diseases at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
Does the delta variant have different symptoms?
According to Wohl, young people have “different symptom patterns” than older people, and men may have different patterns than women.
“It may just be a characteristic of who is infected, rather than just what the virus infects,” Wohl said. “It’s hard to disentangle.”
There is currently very little research on how the symptoms of delta infection differ from other variants, according to Wohl. But he said the biggest difference in how people show symptoms is the amount of virus particles.
“The amount of virus a person has when they have a delta is much higher in the nose and throat, which means more destruction from the virus, more immune response,” Wohl said.
How can this happen?
Viruses mutate over time to evade immune responses. The delta variant has evolved to avoid the initial antibody response in the body, so less virus particles are killed by the body, leaving more in the nose and throat.
“With delta, what probably happens is that he learned to bypass the initial antibody response. He was trained to do it by selection: the virus that is able to do it is selected and passed on, ”Wolf said. “So the initial immune response that protected us from the initial variants is no longer as effective against that. “
When people are not able to develop a robust immune response, they can get very sick with the delta variant, and they can also be incredibly contagious.
How can the Delta variant be so contagious?
The delta variant is more contagious than the ancestral Wuhan variant of the virus. It is about 50% more contagious than the alpha variant, which was already 50% more contagious than the original coronavirus.
In addition to spreading among unvaccinated people, the higher transmission is also due to the fact that having more viral particles also makes a sick person with the delta variant more infectious, according to Wohl. With more particles in their nose or throat, when people sneeze or cough, they release more virus particles into the air.
“With many more copies of the virus with each cough or exhale and for more days, it can lead to what we are currently experiencing, which is this hyper-transmission of the virus,” Wolf said.
Do vaccination and masking help protect against delta variant?
According to Wohl, the immune system of vaccinated people works better and generates a “wider and faster response” against the delta variant.
“I think that’s why we see people who have been vaccinated not really getting sick from the delta,” Wohl said.
Medical experts have warned of a potential spate of cases early in the school year due to young children not yet having an approved COVID-19 vaccine.
Vaccines “keep people from getting really sick and dying,” Wohl said. Vaccinated people who contract the delta variant often don’t get extremely sick and only develop mild symptoms, according to Wohl.
But Wohl noted that even mild symptoms aren’t ideal – “who wants to not be with people for 10 days or maybe risk COVID-19 in the long term and infect someone else?”
Masking is also an effective barrier method that helps reduce the amount of virus in the air, Wohl said; inhaling fewer virus particles reduces your chances of getting seriously ill.
“The lower that virus cloud, the more diluted virus and the less virus, the less infectious it will be for someone else, and masks can help make that happen,” Wohl said.