COVID-19 is playing a game, and by forming its deadly variants, the virus is playing to win.
Those are the findings of UAB researcher Derek Moates, whose work in the Department of Pathology’s Fungal Reference Lab has proved the delta variant is more highly contagious than the original coronavirus.
Each week, Moates analyzes random COVID-19 samples from hospitals in Alabama. Until the past week-and-a-half to two weeks, Moates hadn’t been overly worried. During this period, Moates has seen a concerning increase in the delta variant.
From 34 of the 48 most recent samples sequenced, 70.8% were the delta variant. Furthermore, the strain has an increased viral load – much higher than previous strains.
“The number of delta variant cases is really starting to increase, and it is creating a dangerous situation for our state,” Moates said. “This low vaccination rate is significant because it is clear from what we see in the lab that the delta variant is highly contagious, and those with delta can infect more people because of a significantly increased viral load – a viral load that far surpasses any other variant we have seen to date. If you have been on the fence about vaccination, now is the time to do it.”
COVID-19 shows no signs of disappearing. To date, 11,402 Alabamians have died from 555,215 confirmed cases.
With about 33% of Alabamians vaccinated – and some 67% of residents unprotected – the Yellowhammer State is prime breeding ground for potential new variants.
“With each person who is infected with the delta variant, they have high viral loads, which means that they’re easily able to infect people that are close to them, within less than a minute,” said Moates, who earned a master’s degree in biology at UAB.
With other strains, people could be around each other for 10-15 minutes in a room without contracting coronavirus. Delta’s high viral load means the variant provides a very large amount of virus in infected people.
“The amounts we are seeing now are higher than any we’ve seen before,” Moates said. “This means that this strain is extremely contagious and is spreading rapidly.”
He likened delta’s progression to improving one’s score in a video game. Except in this real-life scenario, the game begins when an RNA virus enters the body and begins replicating.
“When you’re playing a video game, the first time you play it, you’re not going to be very good at it,” Moates said. “So, you play, you come across something, it kills you.
“You learned: ‘I know that someone’s behind this corner, there’s an obstacle here that I need to be prepared for,’” he said. “So, the next time you play, you get to that point and you activate whatever you need to get around it and move forward. You may encounter something else you didn’t expect – you die. You play it again. So, every time you play, you get further in the game.”
That’s what COVID-19 does. The virus mutates as it replicates, by trying multiple, different versions inside the body, to see which one works. Except the game is to defeat its host, the human body.
“The only way we can prevent it from playing the game is by getting vaccinated and, if you are unvaccinated, by using social distancing, hand-washing and mask-wearing when you’re in public and in enclosed areas, so that we can stop the spread until we actually get it under control,” Moates said.
Stop COVID-19 by getting vaccinated
To prevent COVID-19 from progressing, people must get vaccinated.
“What these findings are telling us at UAB is that, if you’ve been on the fence about vaccination, now is the time to do it,” Moates said. “Vaccinations are key to protecting everyone from potentially serious health complications. … People can end up with loss of taste and smell, heart or neurological conditions, or even death.”
UAB in early January began testing samples. Around Jan. 26, Moates’ lab found the first variant in Alabama – the U.K. variant. In April, the lab discovered the South African, or beta, variant. Then, the lab began seeing C-37, which seemed as though it might take over. But the delta variant appeared in late April with the first case; a second case came in mid-May, and a third came in late May.
Around mid-June, Alabama had three delta cases at once. A week or two later, UAB found 11 of 16 delta cases in another batch of samples. A week later, there were another 11 positives from 16 cases. After July 4, Moates started another sequencing batch, in which another 12 of 16 cases showed up.
“What we’ve seen over time is a very rapid increase in the number of delta variant cases, and we’ve been able to identify those by seeing the high viral loads in the sample, which helps us to select which samples we’re going to sequence,” Moates said.
Naturally occurring mutations to the virus are a concern – and the fewer people who are vaccinated, the more likely it is that mutations could occur. This could lead to a new, more infectious variant.
“We know for a fact that delta is here, but what we don’t know is what’s next,” Moates said. “Delta is unique and strong. It knows how to make lots of copies of itself. RNA viruses can make many different errors as they try to replicate. During the viral lifecycle, a gradual accumulation of mutations under positive selection, such as vaccinations, leads to the emergence of new viral variants with improved fitness. The more virus that is made, the more opportunities there are for advantageous mutations to occur, which can lead to a much more problematic variant.”
From a personal standpoint, Moates understands vaccine hesitancy. In August 2019 – before the pandemic started – Moates received a monkey pox vaccine because of his work.
Though the monkey pox vaccine is usually safe, Moates is among the 1% to 4% of people who have a bad experience. The deltoid of his left arm was infected, and he was unable to come to work for weeks because of the infection.
When the COVID-19 vaccine emerged, Moates immediately rejected the idea.
“I didn’t want it, it was too soon,” he said. “I had to stand back from my fears.” He later took the vaccine.
“If you look at it, we’ve all had multiple vaccinations in order to go to school,” he said. “We take a flu vaccine almost every year, a large portion of the population does, because we want to prevent flu infections. It’s the same thing with COVID. This is a very safe and effective vaccine. … We need to sit down, talk with someone who understands the vaccines, answers their fears, gives them facts to help understand, then hopefully they’ll make the right decision.”
People with questions about the vaccine should talk with their doctor. Those seeking vaccination can go to vaccinefinder.org for a nearby location and to get an appointment.