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Coronavirus: How much is the Delta variant spreading in Spain?

Researchers and public health officials believe that the Delta variant of coronavirus, first identified in India, will become dominant in Spain in less than a month.

Coronavirus: How much is the Delta variant spreading in Spain?
Delta variant will become the predominant strain in Spain very soon, experts predict. Photo: Luis Gené / AFP

According to a new update of the epidemiological situation of Covid-19 variants in Spain, prepared by the Health Alerts and Emergencies Coordination Centre of the Ministry of Health, the Delta variant now accounts for four percent of the cases detected in Spain, three points more than a week ago.

Although the current predominant strain is still the B.1.1.7 or Alpha strain, which was first identified in the UK, the situation could change rapidly.

In Catalonia, 20 percent of new cases are due to the Delta variant, the region’s health official Josep Maria Argimon told reporters at a press conference on June 17th, adding that it would be “predominant” in two to four weeks.

Although the data on sequencing for how many are infected with the Delta variant in Spain’s other regions is limited, the Spanish Surveillance System (SiViEs) shows that the strain is already present across many of them.

The Health Ministry has so far only officially recorded 62 cases of the Delta variant in Spain, but several regions have reported many more cases than this. Galicia has reported 25 Delta variant infections, while Castilla y León are investigating 83 possible cases. 

The variant has also been found in Andalusia, the Balearic Islands, Canary Islands, Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha, Castilla y León, the Valencian Community, Extremadura, Murcia, Navarra, La Rioja, Ceuta and Melilla.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus: Delta variant will be “predominant” in Spain, experts predict

Based on these figures in Catalonia, physicist Álex Arenas, who is an expert in using mathematical models to predict the spread of the virus, believes that the variant will become dominant across Spain in just a few weeks.

On June 22nd Doctor César Carballo, who works in the emergency department at the Hospital Ramón y Cajal in Madrid echoed these sentiments when he said in an interview with Antena 3 that the Delta variant was likely to become predominant in Spain in the space of just three to four weeks. He said that this was particularly worrisome because the strain is “between 60 and 90 percent more transmissible”.

On June 23rd, the new variant already seemed to be having an effect when 20Minutos reported that the Covid-19 incidence rate rose in Spain for the first time since April due to the Delta strain and that the Spanish Health Ministry recorded another 29 deaths.

The Delta variant across Europe

While the Delta variant is now the dominant strain in the UK, it is also rapidly spreading across the continent.

Based on its higher transmissibility and model forecasts, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) predicts that 70 percent of new coronavirus infections will be due to this variant in the European Union in early August and “represent 90 percent of all SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in the EU at the end of August”.

A new international report by the Financial Times together with data from Belgian research institute Sciensano, based on figures from the virus-variant tracking database Gisaid, places Italy fifth in the world for the share of cases driven by the spread of the Delta strain, coming in behind the UK, where the concentration of cases is 98 percent, followed by Portugal and Russia. 

While some countries have taken measures to stop the spread of the delta variant – Germany has closed its border to the UK and the Italian government has reinstated a mandatory quarantine and testing for travellers from the UK, amid growing concern over the strain, Spain’s borders remain open to UK travellers who are exempt from showing a negative Covid test or presenting a vaccination certificate.

READ ALSO: Spain clarifies: UK visitors will NOT need to show PCR test but will require health form

Delta variant ‘more transmissible’ than other variants

According to vaccine alliance Gavi, the Delta variant is rapidly spreading around the world and seems to be more transmissible than other variants.

In the UK, the first cases of the Delta variant were recorded in February and since then, this has surpassed the Alpha variant (UK variant), which was already believed to be 43-90 percent more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain in China, according to a study by Science magazine.

Last month, the World Health Organisation declared the Delta strain a “variant of concern”. A variant can be labelled as “of concern” if it has been shown to be more contagious, more deadly or more resistant to current vaccines and treatments, according to WHO.  

The Delta variant has the potential “to be more lethal because it’s more efficient in the way it transmits between humans and it will eventually find those vulnerable individuals who will become severely ill, have to be hospitalised and potentially die” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said during a recent news conference.

READ ALSO: Spain lifts Covid testing requirement for travellers from Germany, Italy, Austria and more EU countries

Delta’s response to vaccines and differing symptoms

The rising number of cases has caused concern that this will halt the progress made by the EU after its vaccination rollout, due to how rapidly it spreads and its potential resistance to current vaccines.

According to a study by The Lancet, the Delta variant is responsible for twice as many hospitalisations than the Alpha variant. The findings were based on hospitalisations reported in Scotland over two months.

After just a single dose of the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine, there is a much lower level of protection against the Delta variant, according to research – just 33 percent in the case of Pfizer.

The good news is however that the latest data from Public Health England shows that those who are fully vaccinated are more protected from the potentially serious consequences of this strain.

The study found that “the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was 88 percent effective against symptomatic disease from the B.1.617.2 variant 2 (Delta) weeks after the second dose, compared to 93 percent effectiveness against the B.1.1.7 variant (UK variant)”. 

“Two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were 60 percent effective against symptomatic disease from the B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant compared to 66 percent effectiveness against the B.1.1.7 (UK) variant.”

Studies have also found that symptoms from the Delta variant are different from other strains, with the most common symptoms reported including headache, followed by a sore throat, runny nose and fever, according to the Covid Symptom Study.

Other symptoms, such as coughing and loss of smell or taste have almost disappeared, the study found.

Dr. Andrea Ammon, European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) Director said: “It is very likely that the Delta variant will circulate extensively during the summer, particularly among younger individuals that are not targeted for vaccination”.

 “The good news is that having received two doses of any of the currently available vaccines provides high protection against this variant and its consequences. However, about 30 percent of individuals older than 80 years and about 40 percent of individuals older than 60 years have not yet received a full vaccination course in the European Union.”

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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.