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Coronavirus Surges Around The World Are Linked To Delta Variant

NOEL KING, HOST:

In parts of the world where vaccination rates are low, COVID cases are surging. South America is now a hot spot. Indonesia is setting records for daily cases. In Bangladesh, the government is locking down the capital this week. Parts of Australia and South Africa are facing lockdowns, too. Many of these new cases are linked to the highly contagious delta variant. We're joined now by three of our reporters. Diaa Hadid is in Australia. Jason Beaubien is in Sierra Leone. And NPR science correspondent Rob Stein is with us in Washington, D.C. Hi, everyone.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: Good morning.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: How are you?

KING: Diaa, I want to start with you because it has been a while since we've heard anything from on the ground in Australia. What's going on there?

HADID: Well, it was pretty quiet for months. But right now, about half of Australia's population of 25 million is under some form of lockdown. And that's after dozens of cases of community transmitted COVID-19 popped up. Those cases are mostly in Sydney. But two cases emerged even where I am. I'm in the city of Perth, which is about 2,000 miles away to the west. So we're under a four-day lockdown now. And so while that sounds really tough compared to other countries, the vaccine rollout is sluggish here. Only 7% of Australians are fully jabbed. But the country's committed to zero community transmission. So this is the strategy, lockdowns to halt the spread. Let tracing and testing be done to ensure that all cases are identified and hard borders. I mean, forget about foreigners. Only a few thousand Australians are allowed in each week. And they have to quarantine for two weeks on arrival. So when cases leak out of quarantine into the community, these shutdowns are imposed. And that's where we are now.

KING: Seven percent of the population vaccinated is surprising to me for some reason. Is that what's driving the outbreak there?

HADID: In many ways, yes. I mean, Australia has been bedeviled by a very sluggish vaccine outbreak. So this outbreak began with an airport driver in Sydney who contracted the highly contagious delta variant. And he wasn't vaccinated. And it just began spreading. And it seemed to catch authorities by surprise. So like, a domestic flight attendant caught it. A birthday party became a super spreader event. It reached a minor who works in remote far northern Australia, where many indigenous communities live. And they're vulnerable to this disease. So a few days ago, Sydney imposed a lockdown. And critics say it should have happened earlier considering how contagious this variant is and Australia's low vaccination rates. Other states quickly imposed their own lockdowns, which leads us to here. And what this has really underscored is the weakness in Australia's ostensibly tough strategy - quarantine, tracing and testing, hard borders - because none of it appears to be keeping out the delta variant. And health experts say the only real way out is mass vaccinations. And that's been a real struggle, surprisingly, for this very wealthy country.

KING: OK. Thanks, Diaa. Jason Beaubien in Sierra Leone. For much of the pandemic, there was kind of a mystery across the African continent, which was that it looked like it was not getting hit as hard as other parts of the world.

BEAUBIEN: Yeah.

KING: Can we say that's changing now?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah. It's not even starting to change. Africa is solidly in a third wave of infections. Overall cases have surpassed the first wave that hit in the summer of 2020. And then there was a second wave that hit around the Christmas-New Year's period of 2021. But this third wave now looks to be the worst yet. And the spike is just heading straight upwards. And partly why this is so concerning is that, as Diaa was also mentioning, the problem here is that very few people in Africa are vaccinated. It's just over 1% fully immunized on the continent. And you've even got some countries that haven't started vaccinations at all.

KING: OK. That is dire. Is the wave happening all across this massive continent?

BEAUBIEN: You know, it is interesting. You're not seeing every country on the continent seeing a similar surge. But you're seeing record-breaking numbers of infections coming from various parts of the continent. Where I am here in West Africa, Sierra Leone, it's at an all-time high right now in terms of infections, hospitalizations, deaths. All the way across the continent, Rwanda is also setting records for them. Then in southern Africa, Zambia, Namibia, they are both being really hard hit also at all-time highs. And South Africa this week went back into a very strict, Level 4 lockdown. So the impact is being felt all over the continent.

KING: How much of it is being driven by the delta variant?

BEAUBIEN: So that's a good question. It is definitely part of what's driving the surges in Africa. The WHO says that testing done in Uganda found that 97% of the current cases there are the delta variant. It's similar in the Democratic Republic of Congo. But testing for variants is complicated. And here in Sierra Leone, they don't have the lab capacity to do this type of testing. So it's really unknown how much the delta variant is driving things here.

KING: OK. Thanks, Jason. Rob Stein here in the U.S., the CDC recently said that the delta variant is a variant of concern - kind of an official term there - in the U.S. And Dr. Anthony Fauci is calling it the biggest threat to this country's fight against the pandemic. What is the situation in the U.S. right now, exactly?

STEIN: Yeah. You know, Noel, the delta variant is what's keeping public health officials and infectious disease experts up at night these days in this country. It's already spreading incredibly fast right now in the U.S. The proportion of new infections being caused by this mutant has been at least doubling every two weeks in this country. It's now infecting at least one out of every five people who catch the virus in the U.S. nationally. And it's already far more common than that in some parts of the country, accounting for maybe, like, half of all new infections in parts of the Midwest and West. So - you know, at that pace, the delta variant's expected to be the dominant virus in this country very soon, probably within weeks, if not sooner.

KING: In large part because it is so contagious. Is that the only reason we're worried about it?

STEIN: Yeah. So - you know, at the moment, that is the main concern. Remember, the first variant that set off alarms was the one that was first spotted in the U.K. that was far more contagious than the original virus. That quickly took over here. Well, you know, the delta variant is estimated to be at least 50% more contagious than that. So it's super contagious. And that's why it's been sweeping through every country where it's gotten a foothold - in the U.K., you name it - you know, blindsiding countries that thought they were in the clear. And it's just taking over just as fast here now. Now, there is also some evidence that it may also make people sicker. But just the fact that so many people are going to catch it so quickly means that a lot more people are going to end up getting sick and even dying.

Now, the good news is the vaccines look like they still work really well against the delta. You know, we have some good evidence, especially for the mRNA vaccines - the Pfizer and Moderna. But there are a lot of people in this country who aren't vaccinated, especially in those places where delta looks like it's spreading the fastest. So they're pretty much totally vulnerable to the delta variant. And so public health officials are saying that's why it's more urgent than ever that more people get their shots right away. You know, that's the only way to prevent new outbreaks from erupting around the country at a time when things finally seem to be starting to get back to normal in this country. So - you know, there's a real sense of urgency to try to get people to roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated as much as possible, as soon as possible.

KING: OK. NPR science correspondent Rob Stein. We were also joined by Jason Beaubien in Sierra Leone and Diaa Hadid in Australia. Thank you, everyone, for your reporting.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

STEIN: You bet.

(SOUNDBITE OF NORTHCAPE'S "CAPILLARY ACTION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.