British Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested on Friday that the variant of coronavirus discovered in the UK may be more deadly than other versions of the virus, although health officials stressed that this conclusion is very uncertain.
“In addition to the faster spread,” Johnson said at a press conference, “there now appears to be signs that the new variant, first identified in London, may be linked to higher mortality rates.”
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The variant was first identified last September and has been linked to the surge in infections in the UK late last year. It’s generally accepted that the variant is more contagious, although scientists have previously said that it doesn’t appear to be any more harmful.
Johnson’s announcement was based on one report from the country’s NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Viruses Advisory Group). The data are preliminary and found that in a subset of patients, mortality appeared to be increasing in those infected with British variant B.1.1.7 compared to other variants.
“If you take a man in his sixties, the average risk for every 1,000 people infected is about 10 deaths from the virus,” said Dr. Patrick Vallance, UK Senior Scientific Advisor during the press conference. “With the new variant, about 13 or 14 people could die for every 1,000 infected people.”
But Vallance advised caution. “I want to emphasize that these numbers are very uncertain and we need more work to get them under control.”
Others agreed that more research is needed.
‘There is evidence from some, but not all, of the data sources to suggest that the variant of the concern first identified in the UK may result in a higher risk of death than the non-variant, “said Dr. Susan Hopkins, Strategic Response Director at Public Health England, said in a statement. “There is still evidence of this variant and more work is being done to fully understand the behavior.”
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Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Georgetown University Center for Global Health Science and Safety in Washington, DC, said the data from the UK was not “particularly convincing” and did not consider a number of unrelated reasons for higher death rates. including the quality of care.
Dr. Charles Chiu, a professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, said he would “hesitate to draw any conclusions about the virulence of the variant from this information without much more data because there are so many potentially confusing factors that support these observations can explain. “
“I haven’t seen any evidence that the new variant B.1.1.7 in the UK or a SARS-CoV-2 variant is more deadly,” Chiu said, referring to the virus that causes Covid-19.
NERVTAG’s new report is “hard to dismiss,” said Jason Kindrachuk, assistant professor of medical microbiology and infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba at Winnipeg. But he also emphasized that the results had to be confirmed by laboratory tests.
Still, the possibility is worrying. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently suggested that the British variant could be the predominant strain in the US by March.
With evidence already showing that the variant makes the virus more transmissible, mitigation measures such as face covering, physical distancing and regular hand washing are more important than ever.
Vallance also noted that the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine appears to be effective against the British variant.
Just two days ago, “Pfizer-BioNTech conducted studies that show that the variant virus was very well neutralized by the blood of vaccinated people,” Vallance said.
“So there is growing confidence, along with what I believe to be a very important clinical observation, that people who were previously infected and who generated antibodies seem to be equally protected against the new virus and the old variant.”
That means that it is important that people get vaccinated quickly.
“I don’t know if there are any more alarm bells to ring to say we need to find out about vaccines and get vaccines into people’s arms, not just in the US or Canada but around the world” said Kindrachuk.