The Delta Variant Exposes Europe’s Urgent Need for Covid-19 Treatments
The French government has announced severe new restrictions on the unvaccinated come August after the Delta variant surged to represent more than 70% of the Covid-19 infections in the country. Starting August 1, only those who are fully vaccinated with an EMA-approved vaccine – or who have recently tested negative for the coronavirus – will be admitted into bars, restaurants, and shopping centres, or allowed to take a plane or train trip.
France is not alone, either. The spread of the Delta variant in Spain is responsible for raising the country’s infection rate among younger adults to more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 – the highest figures in mainland Europe. Spain’s health Minister Carolina Darias has noted that “one in every 100 cases in 20- to 24-year-olds is admitted to hospital”. The concerning rise led Catalan authorities to reimpose a curfew in Barcelona from 1 a.m. to 6 a.m.
It’s a pattern that looks set to expand across Europe. Late last month, the EU’s European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) predicted that the Delta strain could account for 90% of all European coronavirus infections as soon as the end of August. So far, European governments have largely been banking on vaccines to prevent a public health crisis stemming from the mushrooming Delta variant.
Within Europe, immunisation programmes have made decent progress, with the majority of the most vulnerable citizens vaccinated and over 67% of European adults jabbed with at least one dose. As such, the EU is close to achieving their target of vaccinating 70% of the population by the end of the summer. However, daily inoculation rates are now decelerating from Germany to Greece, in sharp contrast to the rapid uptick back in May when pharmaceutical companies overcame previous supply chain issues. The present EU-wide slowdown is due predominantly to the multitude of vaccine-hesitant Europeans causing the supply of doses to outstrip demand – one of the main reasons why Paris has cracked down on the unvaccinated to try and encourage vaccine uptake.
Even if such restrictive measures significantly boost the number of people choosing to get the jab, the Delta variant could still pose a major threat to Europe. While the most effective available Covid-19 vaccines are highly successful in reducing the likelihood of symptomatic disease and hospitalisation by approximately 90%, cases of severe Covid-19 are nevertheless set to increase in correlation with the spread of the Delta variant. This is clearly evidenced by the growing numbers of British patients on ventilators.
With many people still unvaccinated and some adamant about never getting jabbed, the EU cannot take their eye off the ball when it comes to preventing severe cases of Covid-19. This means that vaccination campaigns need to be supplemented with a concerted effort to find therapies which can reduce the health risks for those who do contract Covid-19, either by developing new drugs or, more practically, seeking out drugs which have already been approved for other conditions and show potential against Covid-19.
A promising example comes in the form of American biotechnology firm Rigel Pharmaceuticals’ drug fostamatinib (marketed in the US as TAVALISSE and in Europe as TAVLESSE). The oral spleen tyrosine kinase inhibitor has already been approved by regulators for chronic immune thrombocytopenia, but has also shown significant promise treating hospitalised coronavirus patients and helping heal damage to their lung tissue.
In April, Rigel announced positive results from a Phase II trial carried out in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), suggesting that fostamatinib halved the risk of serious adverse events compared to patients treated with standard of care. The treatment is now undergoing an ACTIV-4 (Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines) trial in the US, and received $16.5 million from the US Department of Defense to support its Phase III trials.
Breakthrough developments are also occurring in the UK, where the Recovery Trial is the world’s largest clinical trial examining potential Covid-19 treatments. Preliminary findings revealed that widely available steroids such as dexamethasone and hydrocortisone could reduce the risk of death by up to a third for severely ill patients on ventilators. Two anti-inflammatory medications, tocilizumab and sarilumab, also showed promising results calming the inflammation caused by a bad reaction to Covid-19.
The Delta variant’s rapid promulgation across Europe demonstrates that mass immunisation programmes, while critical, are not alone sufficient to keep Covid-19 at bay. The high potential for other dangerous variants to arise around the world means that medical innovations are required to improve treatments in hospitals in order to reduce the risk of long-term consequences for Covid-19 patients – and save as many lives as possible.