There is some evidence that a new coronavirus variant first identified in south-east England carries a higher risk of death than the original strain, the British government’s chief scientific adviser said on Friday.
Patrick Vallance told a news conference that “there is evidence that there is an increased risk for those who have the new variant,” although he emphasized that the data is uncertain.
He said that for a 60-year-old man with the original version of the virus, “the average risk is that for 1,000 people who were infected, approximately 10 would be expected to die unfortunately.”
“With the new variant, for every 1,000 people infected, you could expect about 13 to 14 people to die,” he said.
But Vallance stressed that “the evidence is not yet strong” and more research is needed.
In contrast to that uncertainty, he said, there is growing confidence that the variant is more easily transmitted than the original strain of the coronavirus. He said it appears to be between 30% and 70% more transmissible.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization technical leader on COVID-19, said studies are underway to look at the transmission and severity of the new virus variants.
He said that so far “they have not seen an increase in severity,” but that further transmission could lead to “an overloaded health care system” and thus more deaths.
The evidence that the new variant is more lethal is found in a document prepared by a group of scientists advising the government on new respiratory viruses, based on several studies.
Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said that “the conclusion about this probable increase in case fatality comes from analyzes carried out by several different groups, although working with essentially the same data.”
“There is a small difference in the estimated increased risk of death between the different analyzes, although most, but not all, show an increased risk of death,” he said.
Ian Jones, Professor of Virology at the University of Reading, said that “the data are limited and the conclusions preliminary. However, an increase in the fatality rate is certainly possible with a virus that has improved its transmission.”
British officials say they are confident that vaccines licensed for use against COVID-19 will be effective against the new strain identified in the country.
But Vallance said scientists are concerned that the variants identified in Brazil and South Africa may be more resistant to vaccines, adding that more research is needed.
Concerns about the newly identified variants have prompted a number of new travel restrictions around the world. Many countries have closed their borders to travelers from Great Britain and the United Kingdom. it has stopped flights from Brazil and South Africa.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said there could be more restrictions.
“We may need to go further to protect our borders,” he said.
Britain has recorded 95,981 deaths among people who tested positive for the coronavirus, the highest confirmed total in Europe.
The UK is currently locked in in an attempt to stem the latest wave of the coronavirus outbreak. Pubs, restaurants, entertainment venues, and many shops are closed, and people must stay home for the most part.
The number of new infections has started to decline, but deaths remain terrifyingly high, averaging more than 1,000 per day, and the number of hospitalized patients is 80% higher than in the first peak of the pandemic in the spring.
Johnson, who has often been accused of making overly optimistic predictions about the easing of coronavirus restrictions, sounded bleak.
“We will have to live with the coronavirus in one form or another for a long time,” he said, adding that “it is an open question” when the measures could be relaxed.
“At this stage you have to be very, very cautious,” he said.
Vallance agreed, saying, “I don’t think this virus is going anywhere,” he said. “It’s going to be around, probably forever.”