Background The prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection continues to drive rates of illness and hospitalisations despite high levels of vaccination, with the proportion of cases caused by the Delta lineage increasing in many populations. As vaccination programs roll out globally and social distancing is relaxed, future SARS-CoV-2 trends are uncertain. Methods We analysed prevalence trends and their drivers using reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) swab-positivity data from round 12 (between 20 May and 7 June 2021) and round 13 (between 24 June and 12 July 2021) of the Real-time Assessment of Community Transmission-1 (REACT-1) study, with swabs sent to non-overlapping random samples of the population ages 5 years and over in England. Results We observed sustained exponential growth with an average doubling time in round 13 of 25 days (lower Credible Interval of 15 days) and an increase in average prevalence from 0.15% (0.12%, 0.18%) in round 12 to 0.63% (0.57%, 0.18%) in round 13. The rapid growth across and within rounds appears to have been driven by complete replacement of Alpha variant by Delta, and by the high prevalence in younger less-vaccinated age groups, with a nine-fold increase between rounds 12 and 13 among those aged 13 to 17 years. Prevalence among those who reported being unvaccinated was three-fold higher than those who reported being fully vaccinated. However, in round 13, 44% of infections occurred in fully vaccinated individuals, reflecting imperfect vaccine effectiveness against infection despite high overall levels of vaccination. Using self-reported vaccination status, we estimated adjusted vaccine effectiveness against infection in round 13 of 49% (22%, 67%) among participants aged 18 to 64 years, which rose to 58% (33%, 73%) when considering only strong positives (Cycle threshold [Ct] values < 27); also, we estimated adjusted vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic infection of 59% (23%, 78%), with any one of three common COVID-19 symptoms reported in the month prior to swabbing. Sex (round 13 only), ethnicity, household size and local levels of deprivation jointly contributed to the risk of higher prevalence of swab-positivity. Discussion From end May to beginning July 2021 in England, where there has been a highly successful vaccination campaign with high vaccine uptake, infections were increasing exponentially driven by the Delta variant and high infection prevalence among younger, unvaccinated individuals despite double vaccination continuing to effectively reduce transmission. Although slower growth or declining prevalence may be observed during the summer in the northern hemisphere, increased mixing during the autumn in the presence of the Delta variant may lead to renewed growth, even at high levels of vaccination.
Competing Interest Statement
The authors have declared no competing interest.
The study was funded by the Department of Health and Social Care in England. Sequencing was provided through funding from COG-UK.
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The details of the IRB/oversight body that provided approval or exemption for the research described are given below: Research ethics approval was obtained from the South Central-Berkshire B Research Ethics Committee (IRAS ID: 283787). All necessary patient/participant consent has been obtained and the appropriate institutional forms have been archived.
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Paper in collection COVID-19 SARS-CoV-2 preprints from medRxiv and bioRxiv
Exponential growth, high prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 and vaccine effectiveness associated with Delta variant in England during May to July 2021Paul Elliott, David J Haw, Haowei Wang, Oliver Eales, Caroline E Walters, Kylie E. C. Ainslie, Christina J Atchison, Claudio Fronterre, Peter Diggle, Andrew J Page, Alex Trotter, Sophie J Prosolek, The COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) consortium, Deborah Ashby, Christl Donnelly, Wendy Barclay, Graham P Taylor, Graham Cooke, Helen Ward, Ara Darzi, Steven RileymedRxiv 2021.09.02.21262979; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2021.09.02.21262979