It shuttered entire economies and put the brakes on lifting pre-existing restrictions. It was so devious and unprecedented that many governments were forced to make vaccination mandatory. Health passes and double-masking became the norm due to its unrivaled threat to public wellbeing.
We are of course referring to the Delta strain, which is often confused with the common cold because they share the same symptoms.Does that make you feel slightly upset? That’s a Delta symptom so you should probably get tested.
It would require several large tomes to cover all aspects of this extraordinarily oversold health threat. Instead, we will examine its media-fueled rise to virus stardom, and also the mutation’s Achilles’ Heel: “almost no evidence or data backing any of this.”
The Indian strain: a six-month-old mutation that appeared just in time
First identified in India in October 2020, the underappreciated “Indian” strain finally received the attention it deserved after the World Health Organization (WHO) listed B.1.617.2 as a “variant of interest” on April 4, 2021.
It was a curiously timed upgrade for a mutation that had already been in circulation for six months. By mid-April, it was begrudgingly accepted that the UK variant, which had provoked border closures and draconian restrictions across the globe, was not linked to more severe illness and did not lead to higher rates of death.
The sun was setting on the “more infectious” British strain. The era of the “more transmissible” Indian strain had begun.
Impassioned media reports began to suggest (but typically stopped short of claiming outright) that India’s homegrown six-month-old mutation was responsible for a wave of deaths in the South Asian nation. Vivid images were pumped into the minds of news consumers as a flood of stories made it appear as if India was overflowing with Covid-ravaged corpses.
Revenge of the washed-up strain
The BBC reported on May 10 that at least 40 bodies had ominously washed up on the banks of the Ganges in an area on the border of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. “It is not clear how the bodies came to be there, but local media reports suggest they may be Covid-19 victims,” the outlet said.
Ten days later, the British broadcaster published a follow-up that left little to the imagination: “The bodies on the river banks, taken together with funeral pyres burning round-the-clock and cremation grounds running out of space, tell the story of a death toll unseen and unacknowledged in official data.”
Mysteriously, the BBC failed to disclose that funeral pyres are always burning “round-the-clock” in Uttar Pradesh: practicing Hindus often choose to be cremated so that their ashes can be spread in the Ganges. According to Wikipedia, many followers of the Hindu faith live in India.
“That’s why dead bodies are burning 24 hours a day there, seven days a week,” Newsweek reported in a 2015 article chronicling “the theater of death along the Ganges.”
“This same fire has been going for 3,000 years,” a worker at a riverside cremation in Uttar Pradesh told the outlet.
But the ancient burial rite is also pricey – over 15% of the average Indian’s annual salary. “It’s why many families deposit their recently deceased directly into the Ganges or into a channel that will lead to it,” Newsweek explained six years ago. The article cited a BBC report detailing how more than 100 bodies had been retrieved from a floating mass grave in January 2015. “Many Indians regard the Ganges as holy and use its bank for cremations,” the British broadcaster noted at the time.
But there’s no mention of this 3,000-year-old Hindu tradition in the BBC’s May 2021 story. Instead, the news organization suggested that any washed-up bodies were likely connected to a brand-new fad, “the practice of cremating victims of coronavirus along the river Ganges in Uttar Pradesh.”
Beamed to television screens around the world, the harrowing tales that emerged from India in April and May were drenched in innuendo and graphic imagery, while conspicuously deficient in evidence-based analysis. The BBC’s own coverage of the Indian variant sheds light on why this might be.
“Much of the data around the Indian variant is incomplete,” the BBC reported on May 9, around the same time that the broadcaster began documenting the never-before-seen phenomenon of dead bodies floating down the Ganges.
In the same article, the news organization spoke to a virologist who expressed serious doubt over whether the strain was uniquely infectious. “We must not panic,” the medical expert urged.
Another doctor interviewed in the piece pointed out that the Indian variant had been around since late last year, making it unlikely that it was more contagious than other mutations: “If it is driving the wave in India it has taken several months to get to this point which would suggest it’s probably less transmissible than the [British] B117 variant.”
Despite the lack of clear evidence, the innuendo-fueled narrative surrounding the Indian strain continued to pick up momentum. On May 11, the WHO upgraded the strain from a “variant of interest” to a “variant of concern.”
As unscrupulous media reports began to whip up hysteria about the strain being “more transmissible,” the BBC’s health correspondent, Nick Triggle, took a far more dispassionate approach to the issue. On May 18, Triggle penned an article that underscored that far from being an established fact, UK government scientists believed there was only a “realistic possibility” that the Indian strain was more transmissible.
Data collected by Public Health England suggested that the variant may be “much less infectious than feared.” If you read between the lines, “a more complex picture emerges than the 50% [more contagious] figure which grabbed headlines,” Triggle concluded.
The BBC correspondent also drew attention to the fact that there is a one-week lag between “getting a positive diagnosis from a patient and establishing which variant of the virus caused it.” This creates several self-evident obstacles when trying to accurately calculate the transmissibility of a certain variant.
A bad cold
For a time it was believed that the Indian strain could be identified by its body-ravaging properties. In early May, the BBC revealed that coronavirus patients in India were being “maimed” by “black fungus.”
The symptoms were slightly revised a month later when the broadcaster reported that for younger people, the variant feels like “some sort of seasonal cold.”
“It might just feel like a bad cold or some funny ‘off’ feeling – but do stay at home and do get a test,” Professor Tim Spector, a purported Covid-19 symptoms specialist, told the BBC.
Delta: the new but not improved Indian strain
At the end of May, the WHO announced that the most prevalent coronavirus variants would be assigned letters of the Greek alphabet. The newly rebranded “Delta” strain certainly sounded more serious, but in reality, it remained no more menacing than Vanilla Covid.
The Delta strain has “potentially important” mutations that “might make it spread more easily,” the BBC reported on August 2. At the same time, “there is no evidence to indicate it causes more severe disease.”
So far there have been no reports of “black fungus” developing in Delta-susceptible Britons. Curiously, there doesn’t appear to be much evidence supporting the notion that the Delta strain inflicts unique levels of suffering upon its victims. In July, the Telegraph revealed that more than half of Covid-19 hospitalizations in England are patients who only tested positive after admission.
“The figures suggest vast numbers are being classed as hospitalized by Covid when they were admitted with other ailments, with the virus picked up by routine testing,” the paper reported, citing leaked data from the NHS.
“In terms of people who are infected with this variant it has not yet translated into increased mortality,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, said while commenting on Delta during a July 30 press briefing.
There was an attempt to ‘reboot’ Delta but the hype quickly fizzled out. In late June the world learned of a new, special edition version of the Delta strain: Delta Plus.
The mutation “spreads more easily, binds more easily to lung cells and is potentially resistant to monoclonal antibody therapy,” the BBC said, citing India’s health ministry.
After several days of terrifying headlines, coverage of the newly discovered sub-strain dried up. Delta Plus – even more transmissible than the “more transmissible” Delta strain – has seemingly vanished from the Earth.
The real killer
Load up the “Covid-19 dashboard” of any country, state or city, and you will likely find the following: coronavirus ‘cases’ are up while deaths linked to the virus have flattened out. This isn’t what happens when something that is “more deadly” increases in frequency.
None of this should be interpreted as denying the fact that in some parts of the world, far more people than usual are dying. But if Delta isn’t more deadly, what caused the estimated 4.9 million excess deaths reported in India over the past 15 months?
Some have provocatively suggested that lockdowns imposed last spring by the Indian government, which deprived ten million poverty-stricken migrant workers of the ability to feed themselves and their families, may have potentially contributed to the abnormal spike in deaths.
“In India’s version of America’s Trail of Tears, workers were forced to return to their home villages, sometimes thousands of miles away. We have personally received staggering reports of millions of migrant workers from West Bengal still stranded and starving, as their work has evaporated and with it any livelihood to sustain them and their families,” Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, wrote in an article published on July 22.
Like many countries around the world, India also restricted access to medical care, purportedly in a bid to “reserve” limited resources for Covid patients. The policy amounted to a death sentence for many: Hundreds of thousands of Indians suffering from tuberculosis, HIV, cancer, malaria, diabetes, and other diseases, were locked out of the country’s healthcare system.
According to one estimate, missed treatments for tuberculosis alone in the early months of India’s lockdown caused an additional 400,000 deaths – from tuberculosis, not the Delta variant.
Riley Waggaman is Anti-Empire’s Moscow Correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @RileyWaggaman