Viruses like to reproduce, but they need hosts to do it. And with a significant percentage of the world's population not yet vaccinated against COVID, the coronavirus has a lot of room to infect people, mutate and, eventually, form new variants. The newest coronavirus variant that health officials are watching is "delta plus," a mutation of the now-dominant delta variant. The original delta is highly contagious, suspected to cause more-severe disease and, according to an estimate by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, responsible for about 93% of coronavirus cases in the US right now.
Though news of coronavirus variants (alpha, beta, delta, lambda and so on) can be overwhelming, not every variant is cause for more concern than the original coronavirus.
We'll break down what scientists know right now about delta plus, and how concerned we should be about it.
Delta vs. delta plus
In June, health officials in India called out delta plus as a "variant of concern" because it's thought to be better at binding to lung cells and could possibly evade treatments for COVID. Delta plus has been detected in several other regions, including the US, the United Kingdom, Portugal, Russia and China, the BBC reported. South Korea is the latest country to raise a red flag about delta plus, identifying the variant in a man with no recent travel records, according to Reuters.
The "plus" in delta plus refers to the newer variant's K417N spike protein mutation, The Washington Post noted. (Spike proteins are what allows COVID and other viruses to get into our cells.) This mutation, also found in the earlier beta variant, can make certain COVID-19 treatments less effective, according to the CDC, adding emphasis to the warning from India.
Will delta plus be worse than the already horrible delta? To survive well enough and become a dominant variant, a variant needs to infect a lot of people and prove to be more transmissible. So far, delta plus hasn't done that, but more research is needed.
"You need to study a few hundred patients who are sick with this condition and variant and find out whether they are at greater risk of greater disease than the ancestral variant," virologist Dr. Gagandeep Kang told the BBC.
Colin Angus, a public health policy modeler and analyst in England, told The Washington Post that "there is no clear evidence that it (delta plus) conveys enough of a benefit to the virus to allow it to dominate the original delta variant. So although it is clearly here, there is no obvious sign that it has gained a foothold over existing variants of the virus."
How concerned should we be?
As long as the coronavirus is around and a good portion of the population is unvaccinated, we should be concerned because the virus will continue to mutate, according to US President Joe Biden's medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
In an interview with McClatchy, Fauci said that though "we're very lucky that the vaccines that we have now do very well against the variants -- particularly against severe illness," there could be a variant in the future that will "push aside" delta and be as transmissible, cause more-severe disease and get around our vaccines. The CDC refers to these variants as "variants of high consequence." Right now there are none.
Getting the "overwhelming proportion of the population" vaccinated will "crush the outbreak," Fauci said. But until then, the coronavirus has "ample chance" to morph, he said.
"People who are not getting vaccinated mistakenly think it's only about them. But it isn't," Fauci said. "It's about everybody else, also."