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Delta variant threatens plans to lift pandemic restrictions across the world

Countries across the globe are racing to out-vaccinate the rapidly spreading delta coronavirus variant.

LONDON — With the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreading quickly across the globe, countries are racing against time to vaccinate their populations, with plans to reopen after lengthy lockdowns at risk.

And while the United States and countries in western Europe are cautiously easing social restrictions, elsewhere nations that once enjoyed relative success containing the spread of the virus are now faltering.

On Wednesday, France lifted its strict "deconfinement"after weeks of closures, granting the country a semblance of normality.

All restrictions on theaters, cinemas, museums and sports venues were lifted Wednesday, along with a return to full capacity in restaurants. In a boost for tourism, ports will also reopen to cruises and the Cannes Film Festival is gearing up to return in July.

Austria will begin allowing vaccinated American tourists back into the country from Thursday, while the United Kingdom's new health minster this week hinted the country was on track to remove the last of its social limits by mid-July, despite climbing case numbers among young unvaccinated people.

Populations in relatively rich nations with successful vaccination programs shouldn't get too comfortable, said Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London.

"If you start easing restrictions while it's spreading all you will do is accelerate its spread," she told NBC News.

"Once it's become dominant, it's hard to get on top of it because you need severe restrictions to contain a variant like this. It's not the kind of variant you can live with. If you don't manage to contain it ... it changes the future of the pandemic in that country."

With much of the world still unvaccinated, even newer, more contagious and vaccine-resistant variants could still emerge, Gurdasani said.

Health experts warn that despite vaccinating more than 40 percent of its population with at least one dose, France may not be spared another spike in infections as the delta variant rages.

The French government's chief scientific adviser, Jean-François Delfraissy, warned Wednesday that France could face a fourth coronavirus wave this year, likely because of the delta variant, which was first identified in India and now represents about 20 percent of cases in France.

If that happens, the government has said that it may need to reimpose regional restrictions, French Health Minister Olivier Veran told French radio on Tuesday.

A woman walks in front of the Opera House in Sydney on Wednesday as the usually busy streets of Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Darwin have fallen quiet with millions of Australians under stay-at-home orders to control the highly contagious delta variant.Saeed Khan / AFP - Getty Images

In Australia, which has recorded just over 30,000 Covid-19 cases and 910 deaths since the pandemic began, lockdown and social distancing measures were extended to more of the country this week, with four major cities now under a hard lockdown in a race to contain a delta outbreak.

Around 1 in 2 Australians are under stay-at-home orders, with millions subjected to movement curbs and mandatory mask-wearing amid flare-ups in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Darwin.

Swift contact tracing and a high community compliance helped Australia quash prior outbreaks and keep cases relatively low. But less than 5 percent of its 20 million adult population has been fully vaccinated, leading to criticism of a sluggish national inoculation drive.

"It's concerning that it's even threatening countries that had very strong control policies in place," said Gurdasani about the delta variant.

"The only way to contain this virus is to contain transmission in a globally coordinated way, or we are going to have virus that is rapidly adapting."

Russia reported 669 coronavirus-related deaths nationwide on Wednesday, the most confirmed in a single day since the pandemic began, amid a surge in cases that authorities blame on the delta variant. Moscow is pushing reluctant residents to get vaccinated.

In South Korea, which also had relative success in stemming outbreaks, the government is now finding that new control measures are necessary. Authorities said they would delay by a week the relaxation of social distancing rules in the capital, Seoul, and its neighboring regions due to a sudden increase in cases.

South Korea has inoculated close to 30 percent of its 52 million population with at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

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Japan, set to host the Tokyo Summer Olympics in under a month, was also mulling extending its quasi state of emergency set to be lifted on July 12 in the capital, due to an uptick in infections. And in Indonesia, President Joko Widodo said on Wednesday that emergency social restrictions were being finalized amid a "very high" spike in coronavirus cases.

Even secretive North Korea, which has never openly confirmed the existence of Covid-19 cases, saw leader Kim Jong Un this week chastise ruling party officials for failures in anti-epidemic work that led to an unspecified "great crisis," state media reported on Wednesday.

The Middle East is also seeing a spike in delta variant cases, especially in Iraq and Tunisia, authorities there have said.

Volunteers stand in a vaccination center in Capbreton, in the Landes region, southwestern France, Thursday, June 24, 2021.Bob Edme / AP

The rampant delta spread has global leaders pressing for quicker vaccine delivery in the many countries that have yet to receive adequate stocks, in a bid to out-vaccinate the virus.

During their first face-to-face meeting in two years, G20 foreign ministers called on Tuesday for improved cooperation to tackle the pandemic and boost vaccines.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the need to deliver many more vaccines to poorer countries, which have so far received far fewer doses than wealthy nations.

"To bring the pandemic to an end, we must get more vaccines to more places," he said.

Earlier this week the State Department said America would ship 2.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine to Pakistan, which has significant vaccine hesitancy and rising case numbers.

Pakistan has relied extensively on the Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines donated by ally China and has now begun a mass vaccination campaign open to all adults, in an attempt to curb the climbing case numbers.

Nancy Ing, Andy Eckardt and Reuters contributed.