Coronavirus: Where COVID-19 Delta has been contained overseas

As New Zealand responds to its first community outbreak of the highly infectious Delta SARS-CoV-2 virus, some other countries have proven it can be contained.

The variant - which first originated in India and has since gone on to become the dominant version of the virus globally - can cause more serious symptoms and is far more infectious than previous strains.

Officials here in New Zealand are taking it extremely seriously, taking a more cautious approach to combatting the variant than what we saw during previous outbreaks. For example, more than ten times more contacts of cases are being asked to isolate and get tested than during last August's community scare. 

Some have questioned whether New Zealand's elimination strategy would be effective in the face of Delta, especially when considering how New South Wales' response has deteriorated and the state's Premier Gladys Berejiklian saying zero cases was now a "completely unrealistic" target.

Professor Michael Baker, an epidemiologist with the University of Otago, however, says elimination is still viable in the fight against Delta in New Zealand - at least in the medium term. 

To date, he says it has given Aotearoa much lower COVID-19 mortality rates, hospitalisations, and a better economic response. When looking long-term, he says much will depend on the "balance between viral evolution and improvements in vaccines and anti-virals".

"On balance, I think there are big advantages for New Zealand continuing the elimination strategy for at least the medium term until the population is highly vaccinated," he said. "That approach keeps our options open. 

"This assessment is not forever, and will need to be reviewed regularly as the pandemic and state of science knowledge continue to evolve."

He said his conclusion that elimination remains effective is supported "by successful containment of Delta variant outbreaks in China, Taiwan, Singapore and several states and territories in Australia".

3D rendering Futuristic design of Virus exploding, Destroy The Coronavirus
Photo credit: Getty Images.

China, Taiwan and Singapore recently saw a large increase in Delta cases but seem to now have them mostly under control.

Take Taiwan. It was once hailed alongside New Zealand as having one of the world's better COVID-19 responses, had had only a handful of cases until it saw a massive surge in May with the arrival of the Alpha variant, leading to hundreds of cases every day. 

By June 26, when the island saw the arrival of Delta, numbers were already trending down, and despite the introduction of the very infectious variant to the community, they never took off again. Lately, daily case numbers have been sitting in the high single-digit range.

Much of Taiwan's success has come down to its peoples' compliance with public health protocols, like wearing masks and recording their locations. A mask mandate was already placed on public transport, but this was extended to anyone going outside of their residence.

Taiwan did enter a soft lockdown to fight the spread, with gatherings limited to five people, stay-at-home orders, and most businesses closed, but takeaways operating. That eventually eased, with some places, like museums and cinemas, reopening in early July. According to the Our World In Data Stringency Index, at no point did its lockdown get as strict as New Zealand's alert level 4.

It was just on Tuesday that China reported no new local cases of COVID-19 for the first time since early July. Delta was first detected in the city of Nanjing before spreading across the country, infecting about 1200 people. The country responded with mass testing for millions and imposed travel restrictions and lockdowns in some cities. 

According to one expert, Chen Zhengming, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Oxford, people in China have become accustomed to the harsh restrictions. 

"Although China's current (COVID containment) policy is characterised by a high degree of disruption as well as cost, a suite of effective measures has been established, which I don't think will be abandoned easily," Chen told Reuters.

"Inspections at customs, quarantine, the mobilisation of communities, mass testing, etc, one round, two rounds, and then three rounds, China has grown accustomed to them."

Chen - like Prof Baker - was also unsure, however, about whether the zero-tolerance approach could work in the long-term. 

Across the ditch, while NSW recorded nearly 1000 cases on Wednesday, and Victoria and ACT struggle to stamp the virus out, Queensland has done well with its response to an outbreak in July. It's now only recording a very small number of local cases each day - if any - after imposing snap lockdowns on affected areas. Most restrictions have now been lifted.