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Virologist warns that Delta variant poses ‘great risk’ to those only partially vaccinated

A student receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic on the University of Washington campus on May 18, 2021, in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Washington is inching closer to being 70% vaccinated. But if you haven’t received your second vaccine shot, you may want to get another shot soon to be better protected against any COVID-19 variant.

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The Delta variant is now starting to spread in the United States, and has been identified locally. It’s thought to be more contagious, and may infect those who are only partially vaccinated at a higher rate.

“The main thing that people really should know about the Delta variant, is that to me, as a virologist, this is probably the most concerning variant that has emerged so far,” Dr. Angela Rasmussen told KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show. “But what people really should know about it is that we do have a solution for it and that is the full vaccination.”

“A complete regimen of your vaccine shots is very, very protective against the Delta variant, over 90% protective,” she said. “So people really should know, first and foremost, if you’re worried about the Delta variant, or just in general, and you haven’t been fully vaccinated yet, you should go out and get your vaccine and make sure that you complete the vaccine regimen. But what people should also know about the Delta variant is that, as you said, it is more transmissible, which means if you’re around somebody who is infected with it, you are more likely to be infected with it yourself if you’re not vaccinated.”

It is, Rasmussen confirms, pretty good at infecting people who have only been partially vaccinated.

“They do have a little more protection against it than people who are unvaccinated. But it still poses a great risk to people who are only partially vaccinated or they’ve only gotten their first shot,” she said. “That’s why, again, it’s really important that people do go out and complete their vaccination regimens to make sure that they are as protected as possible from this.”

It’s still unclear, however, if the variant is more pathogenic, or more likely to send people to the ICU.

“The key message to take home is don’t get the Delta variant,” Rasmussen said. “Take precautions if you’re not fully vaccinated, and get fully vaccinated as soon as you possibly can.”

Dr. Rasmussen received the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. She says it’s known that the J&J does protect people very well against severe disease, and there’s no reason why it wouldn’t protect against the Delta variant, but her concern is if those with the one-shot vaccine would be more susceptible to breakthrough infections since there is no booster shot at this time.

“One of the things that the booster shots do in terms of your immune system is they basically just give your immune system, the cells of your immune system, the B cells that make antibodies,
a reminder of what they are looking out for,” she explained. “And so those antibodies that they make can basically be even better. They can be even more neutralizing and capable of rendering the virus noninfectious. There’s no second shot with the Johnson & Johnson, so my question, and this is really a question to the NIH and to our public health officials, is: Is it time to think about recommending a booster shot of an mRNA vaccine for people who have gotten Johnson & Johnson to reduce their risk of being infected with it or having a breakthrough infection even further?”

While the J&J vaccine does have a lower effective rate than Pfizer and Moderna, Rasmussen says that the clinical trials were done in different ways.

“Johnson & Johnson looked at symptomatic COVID-19, but it also looked at severe symptomatic COVID-19, whereas Pfizer and Moderna just looked at symptomatic COVID-19 overall,” she said. “So while Johnson & Johnson was 60% efficacious in the trial at preventing all symptomatic COVID-19, including mild, it was very, very effective — right on the same level as Moderna and Pfizer — at preventing severe COVID-19, which early on was definitely what we needed.”

“We need to keep people out of the hospital. We need to keep people from dying. But now that we’re still looking at spread and there are many places in the U.S. where people are still not vaccinated, we also need to be thinking about protecting people against infection, and a booster could potentially improve that,” she added.

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Dr. Rasmussen says she does not regret getting Johnson & Johnson and is very glad to have received it.

“It’s going to be really helpful for a lot of other people who can’t necessarily make it to two vaccine appointments,” she said. “… I think that there’s still a place in the landscape for Johnson & Johnson. It is a very good vaccine.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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