At least two cases of what's being referred to as the "Delta Plus" variant of COVID-19 have been reported in South Korea, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Tuesday. The mutation isn't different enough from Delta to receive its own Greek alphabet letter and is basically the same as its predecessor but with the addition of a K417N mutation in a spike protein, hence the "Plus" designation.
So, for those of you wondering what in the fresh COVID hell Delta Plus even is, we have some answers. The Delta Plus variant has been detected in several countries, including Britain, the United States, Portugal, and India. The U.K. has found current COVID-19 vaccines are still effective against the mutation.
In South Korea, "The first case was identified in a man in 40s who has no recent travel records," the KDCA told Reuters. The KDCA is investigating the source of transmission. After testing 280 people who were in contact with the man, they found only one other positive case — his son. However, it was unclear whether his son is also infected with the Delta Plus variant. South Korea's second Delta Plus case was detected in an individual who had recently traveled back to the country from the U.S.
How bad is Delta Plus, you may ask (with dread)? Medical experts in India last month labeled the variant as one of concern, warning that its transmission rate seemed to be more viral than other variants. According to India's health ministry, Delta Plus has the ability to bind more easily to lung cells and might be resistant to therapies that are used to treat COVID-19.
New variants form as a result of the virus mutating its own genetic code, and essentially making mistakes when replicating that code, which leads to different variations of the virus. Some mutations in the genetic code make the virus weaker, while others have little effect. But some make it stronger, as is the case with the Delta variant and now the Delta Plus variant, Forbes reports.
"We've got to be more willing to consider observations made in other countries dealing with [the coronavirus]," James Hildreth, president and chief executive of Meharry Medical College, told The Washington Post. "Again, we saw what happened with Delta in India and how quickly it spread... Why would we think the Delta-Plus variant would be different?"
The Delta variant rapidly spread after it was first detected in India in the spring, when 70% of sequenced COVID cases were the Delta variant. With vaccination rates on the rise across India, COVID cases are also decreasing there. But Delta has already spread around the world, now accounting for 84% of cases in Australia, 72% of cases sequenced in South Africa, and 82% of cases in the U.S., according to research from John Hopkins' Coronavirus Resource Center. The Delta variant also accounted for an 80% increase in deaths across Africa in just the last four weeks, the World Health Organization said.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news conference Friday that the Delta variant has so far been detected in 132 countries and that the pandemic's current worsening infection rate and death toll are "being driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant." Ghebreyesus added, "Almost 4 million cases were reported to WHO last week, and on current trends, we expect the total number of cases to pass 200 million within the next two weeks."
However, much remains to be seen about the Delta Plus variant and whether it will become a more dominant strain of the coronavirus than its predecessor.
"To date, there is no clear evidence that it conveys enough of a benefit to the virus to allow it to dominate the original Delta variant," Colin Angus, a public health policy modeller and analyst in England told The Washington Post. "So although it is clearly here, there is no obvious sign that it has gained a foothold over existing variants of the virus."
What we do know is that vaccines are still the best defence against the coronavirus, even as it continues to mutate.