You were part of the international expert panel that re-named the current variants of concern using the Greek alphabet, like "Delta" for the so-called "India variant". Why?
We wanted something that is easy to say, easy to remember, something that people are already familiar with a little bit, but that it didn’t have a connotation with a country. That was one thing we tried to avoid, to reduce people saying the "Indian variant", "the South-African variant". I think Greek letters tick a lot of these boxes: they’re easy to say, used worldwide in math, physics and science, and they don’t make people think that the variant came from this one place, and that place is bad. We tried other options, like including just numbers: variant 1, variant 2,.. or to naming the variants like storms, after people’s names, or others, but there were downsides to each of these approaches, so we decided to use the Greek alphabet.
Do you think the Delta version could become also the dominant variant in Europe?
I think it’s still a little bit too early to say. What’s happening with the Delta variant is a good reminder of what we’ve learned with EU1 – because at the moment we don’t see the Delta variant much in continental Europe, it seems to be mostly in the UK. One of the things that is really different there, is the number of strong connections to India, and many people arrived from India to the UK before the travel ban went in place. Just like with EU1, introductions make a difference. Now that doesn’t mean that the variant isn’t more transmissible, it could be more transmissible as well, but it makes it a little harder to predict whether this will be similar in Europe or maybe because we had fewer introductions, we manage to contain it more. I think at the moment we need more data before we can predict that.
We’re in a comfortable position here, but what happens when the Delta variant hits countries with no vaccines or poor infrastructure, like Nepal or countries in Africa?
This is really where we should be trying to focus some more discussion and support. Especially in the west, in the US, in a lot of Europe, we’re reaching a point now where we’ve got a good vaccine roll out, and we’re expecting to have a large number of people vaccinated in the next month or two. That’s fantastic, but it’s so far from the case in so many countries around the world that are still at risk. And I would love to see and hear more governments starting to turn their attention to "OK, we’ve got things going pretty well in our country, how do we support other countries now? How can we extend the availability of vaccinations, how can we provide oxygen tanks in countries with outbreaks, or money for health care services?"
Because the thing is: this is a global pandemic, and we’ve seen what happens when variants arise in other countries - they can come to our country. Our restrictions are not perfect. And what we definitely don’t want to see is a variant arising that can make its way around vaccines. So the best strategy is to make it so that everyone can control their case numbers. Because we won’t really be safe from Sars-CoV-2 until everyone is able to keep those case numbers down.