"Leak" from CDC: Delta more transmissible than smallpox, chickenpox, or Ebola

The incompetence at the CDC continues apace, this time in a leak of background data the agency refused to release with its guidance. The New York Times published the contents of an internal report that offers “an even grimmer view” of the Delta COVID-19 variant. According to this “internal presentation,” Delta’s more transmissible than Ebola or smallpox.

Absent from this leak? The actual data and peer-reviewed studies on which these claims are based, natch:

The Delta variant is much more contagious, more likely to break through protections afforded by the vaccines and may cause more severe disease than all other known versions of the virus, according to an internal presentation circulated within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, the director of the agency, acknowledged on Tuesday that vaccinated people with so-called breakthrough infections of the Delta variant carry just as much virus in the nose and throat as unvaccinated people, and may spread it just as readily, if less often.

But the internal document lays out a broader and even grimmer view of the variant.

The Delta variant is more transmissible than the viruses that cause MERS, SARS, Ebola, the common cold, the seasonal flu and smallpox, and it is as contagious as chickenpox, according to the document, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.

The Washington Post got the leak last night too:

The delta variant of the coronavirus appears to cause more severe illness than earlier variants and spreads as easily as chickenpox, according to an internal federal health document that argues officials must “acknowledge the war has changed.”

The document is an internal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention slide presentation, shared within the CDC and obtained by The Washington Post. It captures the struggle of the nation’s top public health agency to persuade the public to embrace vaccination and prevention measures, including mask-wearing, as cases surge across the United States and new research suggests vaccinated people can spread the virus.

The document strikes an urgent note, revealing the agency knows it must revamp its public messaging to emphasize vaccination as the best defense against a variant so contagious that it acts almost like a different novel virus, leaping from target to target more swiftly than Ebola or the common cold.

You have to scroll waaay down into the WaPo article to find this:

The presentation includes a note that the findings and conclusions are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the CDC’s official position.

That poses very interesting questions about this leak to multiple media outlets. The CDC took a lot of criticism for reversing its guidance without supplying any supporting data. The leak certainly has the appearance of the CDC attempting to do damage control without taking any official position — and still without releasing the complete set of data on which this change was based.

On the other hand, the warning that this doesn’t reflect the CDC’s official position raises another possibility. It might be that the agency didn’t find these hyperbolic claims convincing or supported by the data and declined to adopt it. The authors themselves might be leaking this as a way to get around agency leadership and push the most frightening picture possible of Delta, even while they curiously fail to leak the full set of supporting data along with their hypotheses.

All of this leads to the consensus conclusion that the CDC has bungled its messaging, if not everything related to its pandemic management:

Former Baltimore health commissioner and emergency physician Dr. Leana Wen said a national COVID-19 vaccine mandate is needed since the “honor system” of self-reporting vaccine status has not worked, and that the Biden administration needs to rely on scientists beyond those in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to make public health decisions related to the pandemic.

On “The Takeout” podcast, Wen said that after the CDC updated its mask guidance in May and recommended that those who are vaccinated do not need to wear masks, its communications strategy was “frankly, very poor,” and the “honor system [of getting vaccinated before unmasking] did not work.”

Is that what this data means, though? The NYT waits until the very end of the article to admit that the actual real-world data on vaccines shows that they have been “highly effective” against symptomatic infection:

Infection with the Delta variant may be more likely to lead to severe illness, the document noted. Studies from Canada and Scotland found that people infected with the variant are more likely to be hospitalized, while research in Singapore indicated that they are more likely to require oxygen.

Still, the C.D.C.’s figures show that the vaccines are highly effective in preventing serious illness, hospitalization and death in vaccinated people, experts said.

“Overall, Delta is the troubling variant we already knew it was,” said John Moore, a virologist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York. “But the sky isn’t falling and vaccination still protects strongly against the worse outcomes.”

In other words, this is a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” as Rochelle Walensky said last week. The vaccinated have almost no risk at all for serious illness or death with Delta, making the Ebola and smallpox comparisons absurd. The New York Post puts the risk in simple graphic terms today (via Jeff Dunetz):

That’s the actual risk to the vaccinated. The unvaccinated have made the choice not to vaccinate, although they could easily change that status on demand by getting readily-available inoculations anywhere in the country. It’s time to keep the burden of this choice on those who make it, not on those who have responsibly vaccinated and can now get back to normal life.

In the meantime, the CDC needs to stop leaking like a political operation and handle itself as a proper scientific-research agency. Walensky and her team are setting a torch to their credibility. Small wonder many people have stopped listening to them.