LONDON – UK government scientists are increasingly realizing that the variant of coronavirus, first discovered in the UK, is more deadly than the original virus. This is a devastating trend that highlights the serious risks of this new phase of the pandemic.
The scientists said last month that there was a “realistic possibility” that the variant would be more deadly. Now a new document states that it is “likely” that the variant is associated with an increased risk of hospitalizations and death.
The UK government has not made the updated results public. These are based on about twice as many studies as their earlier assessment and include more deaths due to Covid-19 cases caused by the new variant B.1.1.7. The document was posted on a government website on Friday and was reviewed at a government advisors meeting the previous day.
The variant is known in 82 countries, including the USA. American scientists recently estimated that it was spreading rapidly there, doubling about every 10 days, and said it could be the dominant version of the virus in the United States by March.
“The calculation of when we can lift restrictions has to be affected,” said Simon Clarke, Associate Professor of Cell Microbiology at the University of Reading, of the new findings. “It provides additional evidence that this variant is more deadly than the one we looked at last time.”
Most Covid-19 cases, including those caused by the new variant, are not fatal. And government scientists relied on studies that looked at a small fraction of the total deaths, making it difficult to determine exactly how much increased risk might be associated with the new variant.
Apr. 13, 2021, 2:42 p.m. ET
There were also a number of inevitable limitations in the data, including the fact that it was difficult to control whether cases of the variant occurred in nursing homes. The government scientists said the top-performing studies need more data on deaths before they can examine the effects of the variant in more detail.
However, the strongest studies the government scientists relied on estimated that the variant could be 30 to 70 percent more deadly than the original virus.
And the additional evidence, they wrote, enabled “increasing confidence in the association” of the new variant with “increased disease severity”.
The variant is thought to be 30 to 50 percent more transmissible than the original virus, although some scientists now believe it is even more contagious. The first sample of it was collected in the south east of England in September and quickly became the dominant version of the virus in the UK. It now accounts for more than 90 percent of cases in many parts of the country.
As it spread, hospitals have been overwhelmed by the pace of new infections. Doctors and nurses treated almost twice as many hospital patients as they did at the height of last year. A strict lockdown has since slashed the number of new coronavirus cases in the UK.
As an example of the growing evidence of the variant’s lethality, government scientists cited a study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. In January, this study looked at the deaths of 2,583 people, 384 of whom are believed to have had cases of Covid-19 caused by the new variant. The study estimated that people infected with the new variant had a 35 percent higher risk of death.
An updated study by the same group relied on 3,382 deaths, of which 1,722 were believed to be from the new variant. This study suggested that the variant could be associated with a 71 percent higher risk of death.
Professor Clarke said the new findings confirmed the UK government’s decision to raise an alert about the variant in December and then release evidence last month that it was potentially more deadly. Some outside scientists initially rejected the warnings.
“You didn’t withhold the data,” said Professor Clarke. “They were very open about how insecure things were.”