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By Ivana Kottasová and Sheena McKenzie | CNN

A coronavirus variant first detected in India in February has now gone global, popping up in dozens of countries and raising fears that the strain may spearhead a wave of infection that could overwhelm health care systems, reverse reopening plans and even potentially undermine the rollout of vaccines.

The B.1.617.2 strain, officially known as the Delta variant, is worrying health officials across the world, including in the United States. The Delta variant now accounts for more than 6% of sequenced virus samples in the US, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While that might seem a relatively small share, the speed of its growth is worrying. A month ago, the strain accounted for just over 1% of sequenced virus samples, according to the CDC data.

Experts believe the Delta variant sparked the huge wave in infections seen across India over the past two months. It is now causing concern in the United Kingdom, where it now comprises 91% of new cases, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The spread of the variant spread came at the same time as a considerable spike in case numbers in the UK in recent days, a spike that prompted the government to deploy the military in the hardest-hit areas to help run the test-and-trace program.

The World Health Organization (WHO) designated B.1.617 and its sublineages, including B.1.617.2, as “variants of concern” on May 10. That classification means a variant may be more transmissible or cause more severe disease, fail to respond to treatment, evade immune response or fail to be diagnosed by standard tests.

The Delta variant was the fourth to be declared a “variant of concern” by the WHO; the others are B.1.1.7, which was first seen in the UK and is now known as the Alpha variant; B.1.351, or Beta, first detected in South Africa; and P.1, first found in Brazil and now called Gamma.

Here’s what you need to know.

Is it more contagious?

Experts now believe the Delta strain is likely more transmissible.

Hancock said last weekend the strain is “around 40% more transmissible” than the formerly dominant Alpha variant, which was already more transmissible compared to the original strain of the virus.

Speaking at a White House Covid-19 briefing on Tuesday, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said studies support the idea that the strain is more transmissible.

“Clearly now its transmissibility appears to be greater than the wild type,” Fauci said, adding that the 6% share the strain now has in the US is similar to a tipping point previously seen in the UK.

“This is a situation, the way it was in England where they had a B.1.1.7 dominant, and then the [B.1.] 617 took over. We cannot let that happen in the United States,” Fauci said.

Is it more deadly?

Early evidence suggests the Delta variant could cause an increased risk of hospitalization in comparison to the Alpha strain, according to Public Health England (PHE).

While PHE cautioned that more data is needed, its early findings showed that people infected with the variant were more likely to suffer serious illness. An analysis of 38,805 sequenced cases in England showed that people infected with the Delta variant carried 2.61 times the risk of hospitalization within 14 days compared with the Alpha variant, when variables such as age, sex, ethnicity and vaccination status were taken into consideration, the PHE said last week.

Fauci echoed the worry, saying the variant “may be associated with an increased disease severity.”

Do vaccines work against it?

There is evidence the existing Covid-19 shots are working against the Delta variant.

A team of researchers at BioNTech and the University of Texas Medical Branch reported Thursday they had found evidence the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine would protect against infection with the Delta variant and others.

They tested the blood of 20 fully vaccinated volunteers against lab-engineered versions of several virus variants and found evidence the immune system should neutralize them.

Researchers based in the UK reported last week that most people who receive two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine still would have protection against the new variant, although they said the antibodies appear to be significantly reduced.

Hancock also said the research so far suggests that “after two doses of vaccine, we are confident that you get the same protection as you did with the old variant.”

People do need to be fully vaccinated to be fully protected. The researchers at the Francis Crick Institute and National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) UCLH Biomedical Research Centre also said that after one dose of the vaccine, people were less likely to develop enough of an antibody response to protect against the Delta variant, compared with the previously dominant variant.

In a news release accompanying their research, the scientists said their findings suggest that the best way to fight the new variant is “to quickly deliver second doses and provide boosters to those whose immunity may not be high enough against these new variants.”

Early data published by PHE showed similar results for the AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines. They, too, appeared to be effective against the Delta variant once both doses have been administered.

Which countries have detected the variant?

The variant has been identified in 74 countries, on every continent apart from Antarctica, WHO said in its latest weekly epidemiological update published on Tuesday.

It is spreading very fast — a month ago, WHO said it was present in just over 40 countries.

Other variants have spread across the world quickly, also – including new variants that were not more transmissible than established lineages. Researchers note that sometimes a dominant strain is simply the variety that happens to ride a wave of transmission fueled by travel and mingling.

What does it mean for global roadmaps out of lockdown?

The UK, where the Delta variant is now dominant, is providing something of a cautionary tale for the rest of the world. Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at University College London, said on Wednesday that the variant could lead to a “substantial third wave” of Covid-19 infections in the UK.

The fast spread of the Delta variant has prompted France and several other countries to place new restrictions on travelers coming from the UK.

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It has already caused worry that the UK’s government’s plan to lift the remaining coronavirus restrictions on June 21 might worsen the spread. Hancock said the government is monitoring the data closely to determine its next steps.

The outbreak in India has also had an impact on global vaccine supply. India is a leading maker of vaccines but when cases started to spike, its government restricted the export of Covid-19 shots.

And the more the virus spreads, the more chances it has to mutate and evolve into new variants that could eventually resist current vaccines, threatening to undermine other countries’ progress in containing the pandemic.

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Drought: Emergency project being built to protect California water supplies

In a new symbol of California’s worsening drought, construction crews are putting the finishing touches on a $10 million emergency project to build a massive rock barrier through part of the Delta in Contra Costa County to preserve water supplies for millions of people across the state.

The 800-foot long barrier — the size of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid laid on its side — is essentially a rock wall, 120 feet wide, built in water 35 feet deep.

Its purpose: To block salt water from the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay from flowing too far east and contaminating the huge state and federal pumps near Tracy that send fresh water south to 27 million people — from San Jose to Los Angeles — and to millions of acres of farmland in the Central Valley and beyond.

In a worst-case scenario, if too much salty water reached the pumps, they might have to be shut down.

“It would be a real bad situation,” said Jacob McQuirk, a principal engineer for the state Department of Water Resources who is leading the barrier project. “Water would be too salty for irrigation. Municipal supplies wouldn’t be able to draw from the Delta. Once you lose control, the only way to get it back is through big winter storms. And we don’t know when those are coming.”

OAKLEY, CA – JUNE 18: Construction on a $10 million project to build a rock barrier across a part of the Delta in Contra Costa County is photographed in Oakley, Calif., on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) 

The Delta, a vast system of sloughs, creeks, channels and islands roughly the size of Yosemite National Park, is located between Stockton and San Francisco Bay, where the state’s two largest rivers, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, meet. It is one of the linchpins of California’s water supply.

What’s happening now is like an aquatic rugby scrum. Two enormous forces, the ocean and the state’s rivers, are pushing at each other with immense power. And state water officials are trying to help the fresh water side win or at least keep from being totally overrun.

Following the two driest winters since 1976-77, Gov. Gavin Newsom on April 21 signed an executive order directing the state to take various steps to deal with drought conditions. Among them was construction of the emergency barrier. The state put the job out to bid. The winning bidder, Kiewit Corporation, is a privately held construction company based in Omaha, Nebraska.

Kiewit also oversaw the $1 billion job to rebuild the spillway at Oroville Dam in Butte County after it collapsed in massive storms in 2017.

OAKLEY, CA – JUNE 18: Construction on a $10 million project to build a rock barrier across a part of the Delta in Contra Costa County is photographed in Oakley, Calif., on Friday, June 18, 2021. As a way to preserve water supplies, the 800-foot long emergency barrier at False River near Oakley is designed to block saltwater from the ocean and San Francisco Bay from moving too far east up the Delta to the massive state and federal pumps in Tracy.(Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) 

Crews are working seven days a week, 24 hours a day, adding 8,000 tons of rock to the barrier each day. Work began June 3 and is expected to finish this week. Under the emergency contract, Kiewit will be awarded $80,000 for every day it completes the work before July 1.

Workers are moving roughly 90,000 cubic yards of rock — enough to fill 9,000 dump trucks — from a loading facility about 20 miles away near the Port of Stockton. The rocks are being shipped on barges to the construction site, about 3 miles north of Oakley, between Jersey Island and Bradford Island, in the Delta. There they are being laid across the channel with excavators and other heavy equipment.

They will be removed no later than Nov. 30 when the winter rainy season traditionally begins, state officials say.

OAKLEY, CA – JUNE 18: A surveyor stands on a $10 million rock barrier being built across part of the Delta in Contra Costa County in Oakley, Calif., on Friday, June 18, 2021. As a way to preserve water supplies, the 800-foot long emergency barrier at False River near Oakley is designed to block saltwater from the ocean and San Francisco Bay from moving too far east up the Delta to the massive state and federal pumps in Tracy. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) 

A similar emergency rock barrier was constructed in the same location during California’s last drought in 2015. It cost $30 million. Then there was only one bidder, instead of four this time. And the company used steel sheet piles and had to purchase new rocks, instead of using boulders the state had on hand, as is happening now. Scientific studies afterward found that barrier worked and kept salinity levels from spiking in the inner Delta.

But it wasn’t without controversy. The barrier blocks boaters and fishermen from a popular route. Researchers also found it increased invasive weeds and clams in Frank’s Tract, a nearby Delta location. Some property owners in the area said it increased erosion.

One of the benefits, McQuirk said, is that the barrier allows more fresh water to be kept in big reservoirs across Northern California, such as Shasta and Oroville, because not as much has to be released to keep the salt water at bay. The drought may end this winter with heavy rains. Or it could go on for three, five or 10 years more, making every gallon saved now more valuable in the future.

“We don’t know when the reservoirs are going to fill again,” he said. “We really don’t know. What we are doing is preserving water for beneficial uses later.”

OAKLEY, CA – JUNE 18: Construction on a $10 million project to build a rock barrier across a part of the Delta in Contra Costa County is photographed in Oakley, Calif., on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) 

 

Most environmentalists say they accept the need for the barrier. But they worry about the impact on fish, such as endangered smelt and salmon, and the risk of huge algae blooms in the area. More broadly, they say the state Department of Water Resources and federal Bureau of Reclamation let too much water out of big reservoirs last fall and this spring for farmers in the Central Valley, even after they knew the drought was worsening.

“They do not have the backbone to say no to the big agriculture producers, especially during a recall election,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, executive director of Restore the Delta, an environmental group in Stockton. “But even without a recall, they cannot come to terms with the fact that we have promised far more water through water rights than exists in the system. And climate change is making it worse.”

Construction on a $10 million project to build a rock barrier across a part of the Delta in Contra Costa County is photographed in Oakley, Calif., on Friday, June 18, 2021. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group) 

 

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