What to Know When Reporting on the Delta Variant

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The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

The global fight against COVID-19 is far from over. As the pandemic continues, the delta variant presents a new wave of challenges and further emphasizes the importance of redoubling efforts to combat the virus. 

If you are reporting on this more contagious variant’s impact on people around the world, Peter van Heusden, a bioinformatician at the South African National Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI), has some key suggestions for you. He spoke at a recent webinar hosted by the International Center for Journalists, titled “Reporting on the delta variant.”

“This is a global picture: we see how delta is slowly taking over. It’s pushing all the other versions of the virus out of the way. It has, what we call, a selective advantage,” van Heusden said. 

Below are a few takeaways from the webinar:

The delta variant is more transmissible than other variants.

Given the biological sequencing process of COVID-19 samples, SANBI and the GISAID Initiative, which provides genomic data of some viruses, have been able to trace and understand how the virus has changed since it was discovered. 

Their samples illustrate various surges over time, with the delta variant of the virus as the indicator for the recent surge in every region of Africa. This variant carries a higher viral load and can be consequential for health care systems when resources are exhausted.

Resources are critical for addressing the new wave.

Lack of resources hinders countries' ability to combat the spread of the virus. This is no different with the delta variant, especially in Africa, van Heusden noted.

“The African continent has been left out of the access pool for far too many things, including the testing supplies. We should’ve seen...much more investment in better diagnostics for the continent,” he said.

Vaccines provide strong protection against the delta variant.

Higher-income countries, like the U.S. and the U.K., have vaccines available to help counter this latest surge. Still, with large segments of the population unvaccinated, the delta variant is causing significant harm. 

The availability of vaccines has led to a decrease in fatalities in high-income countries. The death rate is higher in low-income countries, where access to vaccines and other critical resources is more limited.

[View past webinars and key quotes]

Collaboration is crucial.

Ultimately, collaboration between high- and low-income countries is critical for combating the virus. This has been largely absent to date. Resources and support from wealthier countries are needed now more than ever as the virus continues to evolve. “The more that the virus spreads, the more that variants arise,” said van Heusden.

While the delta variant continues to surge, collaboration between scientists and journalists is also essential for comprehensive, accurate coverage of COVID-19. “The biggest enemy we have at the moment is division and those who profit from division,” van Heusden noted, adding that misinformation about the virus exacerbates the issue. Journalists should also strive to produce reporting that takes into account needed context around the pandemic.

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