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COVID, Quickly, Episode 9: Delta Variant, Global Vaccine Shortfalls, Beers for Shots


Tanya Lewis: Hi, and welcome to COVID, Quickly, a Scientific American podcast series!

Josh Fischman: This is your fast-track update on the COVID pandemic. We bring you up to speed on the science behind the most urgent questions about the virus and the disease. We demystify the research and help you understand what it really means.

Lewis: I’m Tanya Lewis.

Fischman: I’m Josh Fischman.

Lewis: And we’re Scientific American’s senior health editors. Today we’re talking about the danger of the Delta variant …

Fischman: The patchwork vaccine effort around the world …

Lewis: And getting free lottery tickets or beers with your shot in the U.S.

The latest virus variant to grab headlines is called Delta. Why are scientists particularly concerned about it, Josh? 

Fischman: Because it’s more transmissible, and it seems to be putting more people in the hospital, Tanya. And it’s on the rise around the globe. 

Delta was first spotted in India and spread quickly to 74 countries. In England, it accounts for 90 percent of new cases, taking over from the version called Alpha. It’s got a bunch of mutations that seem to help it get inside human cells and evade antibodies that hunt for it. Researchers at Public Health England found the chances of people passing Delta around their households were 64 percent higher than with Alpha. That’s a big jump.

Lewis: England had started opening up more recently, too. Couldn’t that also have led to more infections in addition to some feature of the variant itself?

Fischman: Yeah, there’s stuff going on that can heighten the Delta numbers. People started traveling; businesses and restaurants were opening. But the bottom line is: there’s a steep climb in Delta cases.

And Delta appears to send twice as many people to the hospital as Alpha does. That’s severe illness, such as being unable to breathe. A lot of these people are younger, under age 30, according to research in the medical journal the Lancet.

This isn’t all doom. Even with Delta, vaccines keep people safe. Health records in Scotland show two shots of the Pfizer vaccine blocked Delta infection in 80 percent of people. Both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines kept practically everyone who got those shots out of the hospital, early data from England show.

So what’s this all mean? Already in the U.S., Delta accounts for 10 percent of infections. So it’s coming. With summer reopenings and people mingling, unvaccinated people could get Delta during the next few months, setting up an ugly fall. Getting vaccinated, the numbers show, is the best route to keeping infections down and getting life closer to normal.

Fischman: More than half of the adult U.S. population has been fully vaccinated now. What’s the situation like in other countries?

Lewis: So far, most of the vaccines have gone to the wealthiest countries. In many low-income countries, less than 1 percent of people have gotten a single dose.

An international effort called COVAX was supposed to fill this gap. Its goal was to distribute two billion vaccine doses by the end of this year. But as freelance contributor Sara Reardon reported for us earlier this week, COVAX is far behind where it needs to be.

A big part of the problem is that wealthy countries bought up all the vaccine doses before many vaccines were even approved. COVAX says part of the delay was because it lacked enough funding early on to secure those doses.

Even when vaccines are available, they may be perceived as less effective or less safe than the vaccines available in richer countries. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1.7 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine sat idle while European drug regulators weighed the risk of blood clots. By the time the vaccines were cleared for use, they were about to expire, and many were shipped elsewhere.

Even if COVAX reaches its goal, it would still only vaccinate 20 percent of every country’s population. So many countries have been forced to negotiate their own deals with vaccine makers as well.

There is some good news. Wealthy countries recently pledged a total of 870 million vaccines to COVAX, half of them by the end of this year. That still leaves a long way to go, though.

Fischman: Clearly vaccination is a lifesaving idea. But in the U.S., it’s been tough persuading some people to get these shots. Now states and businesses are using creative lures to get folks to roll up their sleeves. You just wrote about some free stuff people can get. What kinds of rewards?

Lewis: Several states, including Ohio, California and New York, have created lotteries with prizes ranging up to $1 million or more for people who have gotten vaccinated. Some states are also offering vaccinated teenagers the chance to win scholarships to state colleges and universities.

Other states are trying more unusual approaches. West Virginia is raffling off rifles and shotguns. Washington State is letting marijuana dispensaries give out free joints. And New Jersey and Connecticut have been giving away free beer! These offers may not last forever, so if you’ve just gotten vaccinated, check for updates.

And these kinds of incentives work, experts say. A survey of unvaccinated people found that offering a cash reward or saying they wouldn’t need to wear masks anymore made people more likely to say they would get a shot. And if the end result means more vaccinated people, that’s a good thing!

Now you’re up to speed. Thanks for joining us.

Fischman: Come back in two weeks for the next episode of COVID, Quickly! And check out SciAm.com for updated and in-depth COVID news.

[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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