A highly infectious variant of COVID-19 first discovered in the United Kingdom is between 30 to 100 percent more deadly than previous strains, researchers have said.
In a study that compared death rates among people in the UK infected with the variant known as B.1.1.7 with those infected with other strains, scientists said the new strain had “significantly higher” mortality.
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Published in the British Medical Journal on Wednesday, the UK study revealed infection with what is commonly known as the “UK variant” led to 227 deaths in a sample of 54,906 COVID-19 patients, compared with 141 among the same number of patients infected with other variants.
“Coupled with its ability to spread rapidly, this makes B.1.1.7 a threat that should be taken seriously,” said Robert Challen, a researcher at Exeter University who co-led the research.
B.1.1.7 was first detected in the English county of Kent in September 2020 and has since become the dominant strain in the UK.
It fanned outwards rapidly, and more than 100 other countries have reported cases since.
The variant has 23 mutations in its genetic code – a relatively high number of changes – and some of these have made it far more able to spread.
UK scientists say it is about 40-70 percent more transmissible than the first-wave coronavirus.
Its rapid spread in the UK late last year fuelled a surge in cases and deaths and, on January 4, forced a new national lockdown – the country’s third since the pandemic began.
To date, the UK has recorded more than 4.3 million cases of COVID-19. The virus has killed nearly 125,000 people nationwide – one of the world’s worst death tolls.
In a bid to curb the crisis, officials have rolled out a mass inoculation drive which has seen more than 22.5 million people – about a third of the UK’s adult population – receive at least one dose of a vaccine to date.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month said he was confident the vaccines currently being used in the UK – produced by Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer-BioNtech – were “effective in protecting against death and serious illness”.
His comments came amid fears over the emergence of two other highly infectious virus strains – the so-called Brazilian and South African variants, known by scientists as 20I/501Y.V2 or B.1.351 and P.1 respectively.
According to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 vaccines that are currently in development or have been approved in various parts of the world are expected to provide at least some protection against the new variants.