Published June 16, 2021
UB scientists who are doing genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples report that the delta variant of the coronavirus has been detected in Erie County. First identified in India and now responsible for a significant outbreak in the United Kingdom, the delta variant is believed to be as much as 200%, or twice as transmissible, as the original coronavirus strain.
That information, coming as more COVID-19 restrictions are being lifted now that 70% of New York State’s population have had at least one vaccine dose, is concerning to UB scientists and Erie County public health officials.
They stress that finding the delta variant in Western New York reinforces the critical importance of getting fully vaccinated — with both doses — as soon as possible for those eligible to do so because, they note, the vaccines thus far have been shown to effectively protect people against the variants. Individuals who are unvaccinated, or who are immunocompromised because of a medical condition, are urged to continue wearing masks in public settings.
“The highly transmissible delta variant is a real concern,” says Jennifer Surtees, associate professor of biochemistry in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB and co-director of the Genome, Environment and Microbiome Community of Excellence. Surtees and her colleagues at UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences have been conducting the only genomic sequencing of COVID-19 samples in Western New York.
She notes that early evidence from the U.K. demonstrates that most likely two doses of the Pfizer shot is 90% effective but a single vaccination dose of Pfizer vaccine is only 30% effective.
“This is particularly an issue for those individuals who are not vaccinated or are under-vaccinated [one shot],” Surtees continues. “These people, including children, are really at risk as this variant circulates. This makes me concerned about schools in particular. We’ve already seen an increase in cases among children — they are the big unvaccinated pool. The delta variant could exacerbate this.”
So far, only one Erie County sample had the delta variant, but that sample was taken last month.
“I would predict we will see more of it in more recent samples,” Surtees says. “The good news is that case rates in the region are quite low, a direct result of vaccination uptake. This is cause for some optimism about what summer will be like in Western New York. But there are still folks who are not vaccinated, or are not fully vaccinated, who are extremely vulnerable to this variant. The second dose is extremely important for protection against delta.”
She adds that the delta variant is more prevalent in the southern U.S., primarily in regions with lower vaccination rates. “This is something to keep in mind when thinking about travel to different parts of the country,” she cautions.
And while the delta variant is currently in the news, Surtees explains that the alpha variant that emerged late last year and became known as the U.K. variant — and which is about 40% more transmissible than the original virus strain — is now the most prevalent strain in Erie County.
“The alpha variant became predominant in Western New York,” says Gale Burstein, Erie County commissioner of health and clinical professor of pediatrics in the Jacobs School. “These findings from our colleagues at UB reinforce the continued importance of getting vaccinated to protect yourself and, ultimately, the community from severe illness and of getting a diagnostic test immediately if you develop any COVID-19 symptoms.”
Surtees and her UB colleagues will continue to conduct genomic sequencing on COVID-19 samples, which Burstein called one of several key factors in keeping rates of the virus low in Western New York.
“With continued spread within the U.S. and globally, there is always the possibility of further mutations that will make the virus better able to evade vaccine-induced immune responses and antibody treatments,” Surtees says.