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CDC elevates the “Delta” variant to a virus of concern; LSU Health doctor says it’s warranted

Dr. Lucio Miele of LSU Health says it takes more antibodies to neutralize the Delta variant
Updated: Jun. 16, 2021 at 8:05 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The CDC has increased its classification of the so-called “Delta” variant of the novel coronavirus and an LSU Health New Orleans doctor who is helping detect variants or mutations of the virus says being vaccinated is the best defense against the worrisome variant.

Dr. Lucio Miele is LSU Health’s Chair of Genetics.

“It’s warranted based on what we’re seeing in the rest of the world, in particular the United Kingdom,” said Miele.

According to the CDC, a variant of concern is, “A variant for which there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (e.g., increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.”

Dr. Miele expounded on the new Delta variant designation.

“There are two things that make it a variant of concern, one is its partial resistance to antibodies, particularly convalescent antibodies meaning from people who had, had COVID before and the other one is the fact that it is more infectious,” he said.

He said it is believed the Delta variant will become the dominant strain of the virus in the U.S.

“It’s already in the United States and it’s going to start outcompeting the other variants and so it’s very likely that it’s going to take over,” Miele stated.

LSU Health New Orleans is doing genomic sequencing to detect variants of the original novel coronavirus.

Miele says viruses contain genes and those genes are made up of different letters.

“When you sequence the viral genome, you determine the exact order of letters in all the genes of the virus. That tells you which variant you have,” he said.

In the U.S., the Delta variant now accounts for nearly 10% of all known cases and so far in Louisiana, the percentage of confirmed Delta variant cases is much lower than the national percentage.

“This variant right now makes up 2.7% of the new cases in our region, so the most common variant is still the so-called British variant B.1.1.7. However, the variants compete with each other, and Delta is better at transmitting itself. It might also be clinically more serious and so it essentially took over the United Kingdom,” said Miele.

He said given that a limited number of samples from COVID-19 samples are sequenced there are likely many more cases stemming from the Delta variant.

“Oh, it is absolutely likely, you know, here in Louisiana, over 7 million COVID tests have been performed to-date and of these somewhere in the neighborhood of half a million have been positive; the ones that have been sequenced number in the hundreds,” said Miele.

The Delta variant was first identified in India and has been very deadly there and sickened large numbers of people in the southern Asian country.

Miele says having had COVID-19 is not guaranteed insurance against being re-infected.

“Having had COVID before will not necessarily protect you against this variant. We saw a case a few days ago here of somebody who had, had COVID months ago and came down with it again, this time a little more severe, so it’s also not true that the second time around is going to be milder. It depends on which variant you catch, we don’t know the variant of that case, yet but we will. And it depends on your general health status,” Miele said.

The Delta variant is a potent opponent even in people whose immune system has made antibodies after being infected by the virus or getting a coronavirus vaccine.

“It takes a lot more antibodies to neutralize a Delta variant virus than it did other variants, that’s going to be the trend,” said Miele.

On Wednesday, the African American Research Collaborative released findings of its nationwide poll of more than 12,000 Americans on vaccine hesitancy. And the poll’s findings show more than half of all unvaccinated Americans would prefer to get the COVID-19 vaccinations at their doctor’s office.

Ray Block, Ph.D., is an AARC senior research analyst and associate professor at Penn State. He detailed the poll results during the virtual press conference.

“If you give a person a choice to express where they would like to go to get the vaccine, doctors’ offices are hands down where people would like to go when they get vaccinated,” said Block.

Miele in stressing the need for people to get vaccination spoke of what he considers a nightmare scenario involving the unvaccinated and the variants.

“Where the virus continues to spread among unvaccinated people, it continues to evolve and come up with new variants and then several months from now or longer when immunity from vaccines and vaccinated people start declining with time, and we don’t know how long protection lasts yet, now these people are going to again become susceptible to disease that has kept spreading in the unvaccinated population,” he said.

He said given that genomic sequencing requires specialized labs and is expensive only certain samples of COVID-19 test samples are examined for the presence of variants.

“Right now what we’re focusing on are cases that are particularly severe, cases that occur in people who have been vaccinated with one dose or two sometimes, new cases that happen in people who already had, had COVID before, reinfections that are, and cases that happen in patients who either are taking drugs that decrease their immunity, so are less able to respond well or have immunological diseases that make them less able to respond well,” said Miele.

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