We have faced many battles over these past 15 months, from viral forces in the world around us and even struggles within ourselves. Some of these fights have also been against misinformation, untruths and those who seek to sow hysteria.
Keeping a sense of perspective is important, in assessing the risk posed by new variants of concern and in particular the Delta variant, first identified in India.
Since our first engagement with the coronavirus enemy last year, significant intelligence has been gathered on the threat it poses and we are much better armed to fight. The question now is – can we repel the Delta force?
Latest figures from the HSE show that 209 Delta variant of concern cases have been sequenced here. The Delta variants are 1.4% of all sequenced cases but the broader picture would suggest about 20% of all cases here are now of the Delta variant. While the Delta total so far may not appear very large, it needs to be kept in check.
"One of the great challenges in our war with coronavirus has been the unknown."
Whole genome sequencing can take up to two and a half weeks, so there is also a time-lag in getting the exact figures here on Delta cases. However, we see from the latest Health Protection Surveillance Centre report yesterday that almost half of the Delta cases have been in the 19-34 year age group.
There was an interesting article this week published by The University Times, the Trinity College Dublin student publication. It noted that young people tend not to tune into Government press conferences.
It's also unlikely they are watching NPHET briefings, but they are bombarded with social media content, including conspiracy theorists and algorithmic bots. So the challenge is to deliver scientific information to young Irish adults through platforms they already heavily use.
One of the great challenges in our war with coronavirus has been the unknown. The lack of certainty has unnerved people who by nature want to be able to plan. People just want to return to pre-Covid days, when the world looked a lot different. However, this incredible period with the virus has left its mark on everyone and things can never quite be the same again.
HSE chief, Paul Reid, noted this week, that we simply do not know how the Delta variant will affect us at this stage. We can not say for certain how it will play out.
"We are certainly in a much stronger position now"— RTÉ News (@rtenews) June 24, 2021
.@paulreiddublin says people do not yet know the potential impact of the Delta variant, but that with vaccines people have "very strong protection" | More: https://t.co/ZbZhHgcHLQ pic.twitter.com/33rFRAV9wu
It should come as no surprise that it is fast becoming the dominant strain – as it defeats all the other virus type to take top place. But it really only becomes a big problem if the Delta variant leads to a fresh spike in cases and more hospitalisations. That has not happened here in Ireland at this point.
The Delta variant is more transmissible than the other variants of concern. What is less clear is whether it makes people sicker. So to get a better sense of what may happen, we need to look at what this virus strain is doing in other countries.
Cases of the virus in EU countries have collapsed in recent week, due to the impact of the vaccination programme. But the Delta variant is starting to dominate in the UK, Portugal, Russia, the US, Italy, Belgium and Germany.
The good news is that 60% of adults in the EU have now received at least one dose of vaccine. Vaccination is the new piece of armoury we have, compared with 2020 when we simply did not have the full weaponry to defeat the virus.
"The evidence is that the Delta variant will circulate much more widely during the summer, especially in younger, unvaccinated people."
Before the arrival of Covid-19 vaccines, the virus was largely free to spread in an unprotected population. We all witnessed the pain and tragedy that resulted. But because of the vaccination levels here, health officials do not expect Ireland to be back in the dark days of January. Two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine offer 92% protection against the virus and Pfizer provides 96%.
The Delta variant is 40 to 60% more transmissible than the Alpha (UK) variant. The evidence is that the Delta variant will circulate much more widely during the summer, especially in younger, unvaccinated people.
Yesterday the Taoiseach said that vaccines were needed for younger people quicker, in particular through the possible use of AstraZeneca and Janssen doses. The view of the National Immunisation Advisory Committee is awaited on this idea, as well as on the suggestion of mixing vaccines.
Simple maths tells us that the big task at hand is to get as many of the adult population fully vaccinated against the virus as quickly as possible. That will provide the best protection against the Delta variant. What we can not predict is how many other variants of concern will emerge and what they might mean. But for now we must fight the battle as we see it in front of us today and deal with future wars when we have to face them.
Two-thirds of the eligible population are partially vaccinated and one third is fully vaccinated. The HSE graph published this week on the percentage of the population vaccinated by age group was very telling. One aspect stood out. Just 24% of people aged 60-69 years are fully vaccinated.
This is due to the 'AstraZeneca factor' and the 12-week gap between first and second doses, which is being reduced to eight weeks. This is affecting a very vulnerable age group and it is a weakness in the defences that so many people still remain only partially vaccinated. Meanwhile, the HSE has promised to complete the AstraZeneca vaccination programme in the week of 19 July.
"What we can not predict is how many other variants of concern will emerge and what they might mean."
Under the current national vaccination programme, the last vaccine is expected to be administered in late September or early October. However, that may change depending on what advice comes from NIAC on the potential to use spare AstraZeneca vaccines on younger age groups plus the potential to mix vaccines.
We have come such a long way since the really difficult days of January, that it can be hard at times to see the real progress this country has made. It was achieved by people and good sense in the face of almost unimaginable pressures and social restrictions.
In mid-January, we were seeing a 14-day average of Covid-19 cases of 1,492 for every 100,000 people. By this week, it had reduced to 92 cases for every 100,000 people. Hospital admissions and ICU cases have also fallen dramatically.
So the Government faces important decisions next week on the further easing of restrictions. The advice from NPHET will play a big part in those considerations. Cool heads and hard facts are vital, as these decisions have a big impact on society, the economy and individuals.
It is far too early to declare victory over coronavirus. We have endured false dawns before. Delta can mean the end of a river, but this is unlikely to be the last variant of concern. Indeed, the Delta variant will be the dominant one here soon.
But now we are in a much better position of strength to repel the virus. We know what it takes and we have the means.