Delta COVID-19 variant likely to become dominant U.S. strain: Doctor

Dr. Susannah Hills, Pediatric Airway surgeon and assistant professor of ENT at Columbia University Medical Center, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the latest on the coronavirus pandemic.

Video transcript

- About 45% of the US population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and cases are declining in a number of states. But public health officials are warning today that the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant among the unvaccinated could pose a new threat. The Delta variant, which was first identified in India, now accounts for up to 10% of new cases in the US.

Joining us now to talk about it is Dr. Susannah Hills, pediatric airway surgeon and assistant professor of ENT at Columbia University Medical Center. Doctor, thanks for being with us. Let's start with this Delta variant. How much of a threat is it, do you think? And could we be in for yet another wave of this virus in the coming months?

SUSANNAH HILLS: Yeah, I think one of the easiest ways to figure out where we're headed is to look, actually, at what's happening in Europe. Because throughout this whole pandemic, the pattern that's evolved is what happens in Europe tends to happen here in the United States a couple of weeks to months later. And what we've been seeing in the United Kingdom is a surge of cases with association with the Delta variant. The Delta variant is now the dominant strain in the United Kingdom.

So here in the United States, only about 10% of cases in the US are attributable to the Delta variant at this point, but case numbers are doubling about every two weeks. And we can expect to see, given that this variant is more transmissible than the other variants that we've seen, and that it tends to make people more sick-- there are more hospitalizations associated with this variant relative to the other strains of the coronavirus-- that we'll have more cases here in the US, and it's probably going to become our dominant strain.

That being said, it's really important to remember that the vaccinations that we have, the vaccines that we have work really well against this variant. So you do need two doses, but those who have two doses are likely to be well-protected.

- That is if you are vaccinated, of course. While the vaccination levels have been rising, in some states more than others, we still have a vaccination level that's only just over half in the United States as a whole. So curious to know if perhaps lifting some of those restrictions that we've seen-- I literally was just looking at pictures the other day of a completely packed and full Madison Square Garden. Do those restrictions come off just a little bit too soon, considering that we're hearing that the Delta variant is more contagious and can be more severe?

SUSANNAH HILLS: I do think that our case numbers nationally have been incredibly low. So you know, I think lifting restrictions, particularly in the summer, giving people a break, letting people have some social interaction, I think it's a reasonable choice right now. Our case numbers are really at a reasonable level.

But I think my main concern isn't so much where we're at now, but it's the message that's going along with these reopenings. There seems to be a message that we're done with this pandemic, and that is for sure not the case. So I think while case numbers are really low, it's fine to decrease some of the restrictions that are in place. But we've got to be ready to implement restrictions and respond as these numbers trend in the wrong direction.

And I think we're going to see for sure, with less than half of the United States fully vaccinated, that we will have more cases. Many of these cases will likely be the Delta variant. And I'm concerned also that our pediatric population, which hasn't had the opportunity for vaccination for kids who are 12 and under, will also be at risk for increased numbers of cases with the coronavirus.

And there was a study that just came out today in the UK, there's a second study from the UK corroborating what came out today, showing that pediatric cases were probably the driver of this recent surge they had from May into June, of COVID cases associated with the Delta variant.

So I think it's OK, and I'm glad people are out having a summer and enjoying themselves. But I think we've got to not mislead the US population with the message that we're done with this pandemic. We're not. And we've got to be ready to take a step back when we need to.

- That's really troubling, that study out of the UK about younger folks, who are not able to be protected yet with the vaccine, the ones who are now spreading that Delta variant. But talk to us about Moderna's plans here to expand production to make COVID-19 vaccine boosters for those who have been fully vaccinated. Any more clarity on if and when we're going to be getting those booster shots?

SUSANNAH HILLS: We don't yet have enough data to really know how long the vaccines that we're giving right now last, but the CDC and federal health departments are working really, really diligently to figure that out. And I think the key here, what I love about this, is that they're planning for the need for boosters, which I think are almost a certainty in our future. We know these vaccines are not going to last forever. We'll probably need a booster at a year or a year and a half, or something like that. As we get more ongoing data, that will be shared, we'll have a plan. But I love that there's a plan for the future with this.

I also love Moderna's plan to send vaccinations that are in excess globally to other countries. And I think that also has to be part of our protective plan for the world and for our country. Because we're not going to be safe from this virus until all of us are in a safe environment, until we have this virus under control globally. And cases went from 120 million to 150 million in the last six to seven weeks globally. And when you look at what's happened in India and in Brazil, it's really been devastating. And I love that Moderna is planning to send vaccine doses globally. I think we should be really focused on trying to do that as well.

- An important reminder, we are not out of the woods, and we are still in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Dr. Susannah Hills, thanks so much for joining us today.

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