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The Delta Variant Is Changing The Global Effort To Fight COVID-19


The Delta variant of the coronavirus is changing how the world fights COVID. By now, you know the variant was first identified in India. It moves fast. It is in 60 countries, including the United States. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove is with us now. She's an infectious disease expert and the COVID-19 technical lead at the World Health Organization. Good morning, Dr. Van Kerkhove.

MARIA VAN KERKHOVE: Good morning, Noel. Thanks for having me.

KING: We're very pleased to have you. So last week, the WHO said fully vaccinated people should keep wearing masks to prevent Delta, the Delta variant, from being spread. Why did you make that change?

VAN KERKHOVE: Well, actually, Noel, that isn't a new recommendation. It's something that we've been reinforcing since vaccination has been rolling out and since we've seen the emergence of variants of concern. If we remember, we had the Alpha variant that was first detected and reported towards Christmastime, New Year's starting from the U.K., and that has spread around the world quite rapidly. And until we know more about these variants in terms of their ability of our public health and social measures, our countermeasures like diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines, how well they work against these variants, we are advising that people still continue to adhere to the individual level measures that we know work. This includes mask wearing. So there's been a lot of reporting of our press conference last Friday. But indeed, that isn't a new recommendation.

And we just want everybody to do everything they can to drive transmission down. The Delta variant is an incredibly transmissible virus variant. You know, these viruses are becoming more fit. The virus is evolving and this is natural. You mentioned that it's in 60 countries. And in fact, it's actually in 98.

KING: Wow.

VAN KERKHOVE: Ninety-six countries right now. Excuse me. And so it's spreading. It's more transmissible than the Alpha variant. So we need to just do all we can to prevent as many infections as we can and really do what we can to reduce the spread.

KING: I think the spread of the Delta variant and the repetition that we need to keep wearing masks, at least that's the WHO's advice, makes people worry that we are not going to get out of this, that there's no end to this pandemic. Do you see an end in sight, and where do you see it?

VAN KERKHOVE: I do see an end in sight, and we will get out of this pandemic. We really do need to see that. You know, you've heard this phrase of the light at the end of the tunnel, but that tunnel is sort of dark and dangerous so far. And not everybody has that bright, shining light yet. Vaccines and vaccination are an incredibly powerful additional tool that we have. But not everybody around the world has access to the vaccine. I heard you talking earlier about the COVAX facility and trying to improve that. And we've had good donations being announced by countries like the United States. We need those doses now so that we can protect those who are most at risk now in every country right now - not next year, right now.

But we do need to continue to do what we can to drive transmission down. Vaccines are part of the solution. It's vaccines and, not vaccines only. And so masks are part of that. It doesn't mean that masks need to be worn everywhere all the time. It's really in areas where the virus is transmitting, the Delta variant in particular, if you're in enclosed spaces, if you're with others who haven't had vaccination. It's contextual. It's setting specific. And I think we lose some of that nuance when we try to shorten the message. And I understand from a public point of view that this is confusing. But let me be very clear. We will get out of this pandemic. We will see the light at the end of the tunnel. How quickly we get there is up to us.

KING: The CDC's guidance here in the U.S. still states that vaccinated people do not have to wear a face mask indoors. Is the CDC wrong?

VAN KERKHOVE: So I understand that the CDC's guidance has this nuance as well, you know, depending on the type of situation indoors, depending on if individuals are vaccinated, if you're with others that are vaccinating. What we recommend is - we set the guidance and we let the country set the policies.


VAN KERKHOVE: And it will depend on how much vaccine is used in that area. We have to make sure that we put out the science. Our guidance is out looking specifically around the vaccines and their ability to prevent transmission. We know that the vaccines work against severe disease and death, including the Delta variant, but we don't have as much data on reducing transmission. We have good indication that it does work about preventing transmission, but that's not fully understood yet.

KING: Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove with the World Health Organization, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

VAN KERKHOVE: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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