Delta variant cases rise in US, world amid COVID-19 vaccination push

Health officials and world leaders are pleading for more people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the highly contagious Delta coronavirus variant, which was first identified in India, continues to drive up cases across the globe. 

The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that the U.K. recorded its highest daily coronavirus case count since late February, suggesting the Delta variant is spreading widely across the country.

Government figures Wednesday showed that the U.K. recorded 7,540 new infections, the biggest daily increase since Feb. 26. The concern is the increase will pressure the health system once again.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading expert on infectious diseases in the U.S., emphasized on Tuesday that increased vaccination was essential to stamping out potentially dangerous variants, including the Delta variant, which is now the dominant strain of the disease in the U.K. 

The Delta mutation is also growing in the U.S. and is becoming increasingly concerning for health experts who have noted that vaccines have proven to be less effective against it when people are not fully immunized. Evidence also points to it being more transmissible and more deadly. 

In an attempt to drive up the vaccination rate, the White House has worked to encourage an array of incentives for people to get shots — from paid time off to the chance to win millions of dollars. It's partnered with community groups, businesses and health providers to make it easier than ever to get a shot. 

Those efforts have helped sustain some of the interest, but the trends point to Biden missing his target to have 70% of Americans at least partially vaccinated by July 4 by several percentage points. 

About 15.5 million unvaccinated adults need to receive at least one dose in the next four weeks for Biden to meet his goal. But the pace of new vaccinations in the U.S. has dropped below 400,000 people per day — down from a high of nearly 2 million per day two months ago.

"Folks, the Delta variant — a highly infectious COVID-19 strain — is spreading rapidly among young people between 12 and 20 years old in the U.K.," President Joe Biden tweeted on Tuesday. "If you’re young and haven’t gotten your shot yet, it really is time. It’s the best way to protect yourself and those you love."

On Monday, a top World Health Organization official estimated that COVID-19 vaccination coverage of at least 80% is needed to significantly lower the risk that "imported" coronavirus cases like those linked to new variants could spawn a cluster or a wider outbreak.

Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO’s emergencies chief, said at a news conference that ultimately, "high levels of vaccination coverage are the way out of this pandemic."

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, noted the Delta variant is spreading in more than 60 countries, and is more transmissible than the alpha variant, which first emerged in Britain.

She cited "worrying trends of increased transmissibility, increased social mixing, relaxing of public health and social measures, and uneven and inequitable vaccine distribution around the world."

Speaking with FOX TV Stations in April, Fauci previewed Ryan’s recent warning about vaccine coverage, saying as many people as possible need to get vaccinated — not just in the U.S., but around the world.

"If we suppress it in the United States or in the developed world, that’s going to be great," Fauci said. "Now, this brings up an important question: As long as you have virus replicating anywhere in the world, the chances of developing variants are considerable, which will ultimately come back and could perhaps negatively impact our own response. That’s one of the real prevailing arguments for why we need to make sure the whole world gets vaccinated – not just the people in the developed world."

So far, 14 states in the U.S. have reached 70% coverage among adults, with about a dozen more on pace to reach the milestone by July 4. But the state-to-state variation is stark.

Fauci said the administration is "pleading" with states, particularly those with low vaccination rates, to step up their efforts in the coming months, though some of the states trailing behind are hardly sharing the urgency.

On a conference call Tuesday, White House COVID-19 coordinator Jeff Zients delivered an impassioned call for governors to join the administration in "pulling out all the stops" on vaccinations this month. "We need your leadership on the ground – which is where it matters the most – more than ever," he said.

In Mississippi, which trails the nation with only about 34% of its population vaccinated, Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has called Biden’s goal "arbitrary, to say the least." The vaccination rate in the state has dropped off so sharply that it would take the better part of a year for the state to reach the 70% target.

In Ohio, Republican Gov. Mike DeWine created a lottery offering $1 million prizes for vaccinated adults and full-ride college scholarships for children. Ohio’s lottery kicked off a wave of similar incentive lotteries nationally.

DeWine’s May 12 announcement of the state’s Vax-a-Million program had the desired effect, leading to a 43% boost in state vaccination numbers over the previous week. But the impact was short-lived, with vaccinations falling again the following week.

Meanwhile, the U.S. announced on Wednesday that it is purchasing 500 million additional doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to share through the global COVAX alliance for donation to 92 lower income countries and the African Union over the next year, a person familiar with the matter said. 

The news of the Pfizer sharing plan was confirmed to The Associated Press by a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the president’s formal announcement. The news was first reported by the Washington Post.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday that Biden was committed to sharing vaccines because it was in the public health and strategic interests of the U.S. As Biden embarks on his first foreign trip, he is aiming to show "that democracies are the countries that can best deliver solutions for people everywhere," Sullivan said.

"As he said in his joint session (address), we were the ‘arsenal of democracy’ in World War II," Sullivan said. "We’re going to be the ‘arsenal of vaccines’ over this next period to help end the pandemic."

This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.