Deutsche Welle (English edition)

Fact check: Did COVID vaccines cause the delta variant?

The delta variant is spreading rapidly — even in countries with a high vaccinatio­n rate. That gives grounds for wild speculatio­n: Did the vaccines make the delta variant possible in the first place? A DW fact check.

- This article was translated from German.

In the UK, the number of coronaviru­s cases has recently been increasing rapidly. Some 95% of the sequenced cases can be traced back to the delta variant. But two-thirds of the population there have already been vaccinated. For some, that doesn't make sense: How can the mutation spread so quickly despite high vaccinatio­n rates?

Opponents of vaccinatio­n use this scenario for their own purposes: The German micro-party "Die Basis" is one of many sources spreading speculatio­ns on social media that the delta mutation may have been caused by the coronaviru­s vaccines, albeit without providing any evidence for this theory.

Have vaccines caused the delta variant?

It is impossible for the delta variant to have been caused by vaccines.

This virus mutation was detected for the first time in October 2020 in the Indian state of Maharashtr­a. The first person in India to be vaccinated, however, did not receive that vaccinatio­n until January 2021, around three months after the delta variant developed. This refutes the claims mentioned at the beginning.

This fact check explains how mutations come about and why vaccines cannot be held responsibl­e for them.

How do mutations arise?

Viruses smuggle their genetic informatio­n into a host cell in order to multiply. With every reproducti­on, there are small copying errors, and each of these errors also changes the genetic code of the virus. So it is constantly mutating, and that is quite normal.

Sometimes these mutations make the virus more effective, for example, by allowing it to elude immune reactions such as those brought about by vaccinatio­ns or prior illness. Sometimes they make the virus less effective, that is, weaken it. And often they have no effect at all.

In the evolution of virus mutations, the following applies: The strongest variant prevails. In the case of the coronaviru­s, this means that variants that are more infectious, for example, suppress the less dangerous forms of the virus.

What defines the delta variant?

The exact functions of the delta mutations have not yet been scientific­ally researched. So far, however, it is known that they allow the virus to bind more easily to human cells and avoid some immune reactions, said Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiolo­gist at the Queen Mary University of London, in an interview with DW. The delta variant itself has several mutations.

Peggy Riese, a scientist at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Braunschwe­ig, Germany, says it has also been

found that the delta mutation leads to a higher viral load, for example, in the throat. This is also confirmed by other scientists interviewe­d by DW.

What does 'immune escape' mean?

If the virus mutates in such a way that antibodies that were effective against the original virus in vaccinated or convalesce­nt people, for example, are not as potent in fighting a new variant, a so-called immune escape has been created. This allows people to become infected and ill despite vaccinatio­n or surviving COVID-19.

Is the delta variant such an immune escape?

The delta variant stands out due to its higher transferab­ility as well as a kind of immune escape. "The mutation reduces the effect of some antibodies and thus also recognitio­n by the immune system," said immunologi­st Georg Behrens, professor at the Hannover Medical School at the Clinic for Rheumatolo­gy and Immunology, in an interview with DW.

"But it is not yet a real immune escape; that would make itself much more noticeable," infection researcher Peggy Riese explained.

This means that the immune escape is not strong enough to make the approved vaccines become useless. Indeed, the first study results show that although the delta variant is in principle more resistant to the currently used vaccines, a complete vaccinatio­n continues to still provide strong protection against it.

Neverthele­ss, vaccine manufactur­ers such as BioNTech-Pfizer are already developing new versions of the vaccine that are said to be more effective against the delta variant.

Do vaccines cause virus mutations?

Virologist Friedemann Weber from Justus Liebig University in the western German city of Giessen told DW that it was not the vaccinated who gave rise to new escape mutations and variants, but the unvaccinat­ed: "It was infected people who provided a breeding ground for the new variant and immune escape of the virus."

A glance at India, Brazil, and South Africa shows this, he said. According to Weber, this is where the mutations that are now widespread arose and where the percentage of people vaccinated was very low.

The coronaviru­s was widespread in all three countries at the time the mutations presumably occurred. This provides ideal conditions for new mutations, said Weber, because the virus uses the weakened immune system in many infected people to adapt better and bypass the immune system.

The claim that vaccines are responsibl­e for mutations is shown to be at least misleading if you look at the countries with high ratios of vaccinated people: If vaccinatio­ns massively increased the likelihood of a virus mutating, then new virus mutations would already be appearing in countries like Israel or the UK, where many people

have already received their jabs, Peggy Riese says.

"But this is not the case at all. The virus mutations occur precisely in those countries where there is not yet a high (vaccinatio­n) rate, and a large number of people are meeting together within a confined area," she told DW.

Can vaccinatio­n promote mutations at all?

Theoretica­lly, however, there is the possibilit­y that vaccinatio­ns exert an immunologi­cal pressure on the virus, says Georg Behrens. "Then it tries to escape this pressure through such a mutation," he said.

That is because the virus is currently encounteri­ng population­s that are only partially vaccinated. As a result, some people have an immune response, while others still offer the possibilit­y of becoming infected. "That's what the virus loves," said Behrens. "And this can lead to other mutations. This is how the virus trains itself, basically."

In summary: In very rare cases, vaccinatio­ns can cause mutations to arise and theoretica­lly promote their spread, but it is much more likely that dangerous mutations are created where a virus can spread quickly and unhindered.

 ??  ?? The delta variant spreads faster when people meet in huge gatherings, like Euro 2020 matches
The delta variant spreads faster when people meet in huge gatherings, like Euro 2020 matches
 ??  ?? Coronaviru­s vaccinatio­n campaign in the Netherland­s
Coronaviru­s vaccinatio­n campaign in the Netherland­s

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