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Delta variant: EU health agency warns any 'significant easing' of restrictions will lead to autumn surge

The variant will account for 90% of cases in the European Union by the end of August, the agency predicts.

Grafton Street in Dublin, pictured here last month.
Grafton Street in Dublin, pictured here last month.
Image: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

ANY SIGNIFICANT RELAXATION of public health measures this summer could lead to a significant new surge of Covid-19 this autumn, the European Union’s disease control agency has said, urging countries to keep vaccination programmes moving quickly.

The warning comes as uncertainty grows over whether Ireland will press ahead with the planned resumption of many indoor activities on 5 July.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said the Delta variant of the coronavirus, first identified in India, could account for 90% of new cases across the bloc in the coming months.

“It is very likely that the Delta variant will circulate extensively during the summer, particularly among younger individuals that are not targeted for vaccination,” Andrea Ammon, director of the ECDC, said in a statement.

“The Delta variant is more transmissible than other circulating variants and we estimate that by the end of August it will represent 90%” of new cases in the EU, she added.

In Ireland, the chief medical officer warned that the variant accounted for 20% of new cases last week, while that figure is at 50% in Northern Ireland.

More contagious

The ECDC estimates that the Delta variant (B.1.617.2), is 40 to 60% more contagious than the Alpha variant (Β.1.1.7), first discovered in the UK, which is currently the predominant variant of the novel coronavirus circulating in the EU, including in Ireland.

The Delta variant may be associated with higher risk of hospitalisation, the ECDC warned, citing a study by Public Health Scotland.

To counter the spread of the variant and mitigate the health impact, the ECDC said “it is very important to progress with the vaccine roll-out at a very high pace”.

To date, about 30% of the over-80s and some 40% of the over-60s in the EU are still not fully vaccinated, according to the ECDC.

Vaccine uptake levels

Vaccine uptake levels are higher in Ireland than in some EU counterparts: Almost 100% of those over 80, 97% of those aged 70 to 79, 92% of those aged 60 to 69, and 87% of those aged 50 to 59.

“At this stage it becomes crucial that the second vaccination dose is administered within the minimum authorised interval from the first dose, to speed up the rate at which vulnerable individuals become protected,” Ammon said.

Irish authorities have already taken such a move, reducing the dose interval for the AstraZeneca vaccine from three months to two.

The ECDC is also urging countries to be cautious about relaxing curbs aimed at limiting the spread.

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“Any relaxation over the summer months of the stringency of non-pharmaceutical measures that were in place in the EU/EEA in early June could lead to a fast and significant increase in daily cases in all age groups,” the agency said.

This increase could in turn lead to a rise in “hospitalisations, and deaths, potentially reaching the same levels of the autumn of 2020 if no additional measure are taken,” it added.

England, where the Delta variant is dominant, has experienced an uptick in hospitalisations and deaths despite widespread vaccination.

The report continues:

The continuation of vaccination rollout at current levels is crucial in order to keep the incidence levels at manageable levels, and further acceleration of vaccination rollout, including achieving higher levels of vaccination coverage, could have a substantial impact on decreasing incidence, hospitalisations and deaths, particularly in older age groups.
Non-pharmaceutical interventions should be maintained at a level sufficient to contain community transmission of the Delta [variant] until greater shares of the population are fully vaccinated, in order to avoid a resurgence of cases with a possible increase in hospitalisations and mortality.

More than 3.45 million Covid vaccine doses have been administered in Ireland.

More than 2.3 million people have a first dose, equal to 58.8% of the eligible population, and almost 1.2 million people are fully vaccinated, equal to 30.7% of the eligible population.

© – AFP, 2021, with additional reporting by Nicky Ryan

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