British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday the COVID-19 variant first discovered in the U.K. may be associated with a higher level of mortality. However, he said evidence showed that both vaccines being used in the country are effective against it.
“We’ve been informed today that in addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant — the variant that was first discovered in London and the southeast (of England) — may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” he told a news briefing.
Researchers on the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) concluded that there is a “realistic possibility that infection with VOC B.1.1.7 is associated with an increased risk of death.”
Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said the evidence about mortality levels was “not yet strong,” and came from a “series of different bits of information,” stressing there was great uncertainty around the data.
The warning about the higher risk of death from the new variant, which was identified in England late last year, came as a fresh blow after the country had earlier been buoyed by news the number of new COVID-19 infections was estimated to be shrinking by as much as 4% a day.
Johnson said however that all the current evidence showed both vaccines remained effective against old and new variants.
News that the variant may possibly be more deadly is a reversal from previous indications.
A technical report released in late December by British researchers found no significant difference in mortality or morbidity in a study analyzing groups of people with “regular” COVID-19 and those infected with the variant.
At the time, experts said it was a positive result, but cautioned that the data was still preliminary.
Canada has its own batch of cases of the variant from the U.K., though it has been limited to date.
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Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top doctor, said Friday that there are 31 cases of the variant from the U.K., and three cases of the variant first detected in South Africa.
The emergence of the strain among individuals who have not travelled abroad raises concerns that it could spread rapidly and overload Canadian health-care systems.
Prior to Johnson’s announcement Friday, the fears of the variant surrounded its increased transmissibility — 30 to 70 per cent more — than its deadliness.
The heightened risk of contagiousness shouldn’t be negated, experts say.
“It’s a numbers game,” Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital, told Global News in a previous interview.
“You would have more people infected, more people sick, which means there’s a greater number of people that are going to require hospital resources, which then means, sadly, a greater number of people who succumb to this illness,” he said.
So far, all signs still point to the approved vaccines in Canada and the U.K. being effective against the variants.
But, like any emerging illness, it’s still too early to know definitively, the World Health Organization’s director of immunization, Kate O’Brien, warned Friday.
England ramps up vaccines
Data published earlier on Friday showed that 5.38 million people in the U.K. had been given their first dose of a vaccine, with 409,855 receiving it in the past 24 hours, a record high so far.
England and Scotland announced new restrictions on Jan. 4 to stem a surge in the disease fueled by the highly transmissible new variant of the coronavirus, which has led to record numbers of daily deaths and infections this month.
The latest estimates from the health ministry suggest that the number of new infections was shrinking by between 1% and 4% a day. Last week, it was thought cases were growing by much as 5%, and the turnaround gave hope that the spread of the virus was being curbed, although the ministry urged caution.
The closely watched reproduction “R” number was estimated to be between 0.8 and 1, down from a range of 1.2 to 1.3 last week, meaning that on average, every 10 people infected will infect between eight and 10 other people.
But the Office for National Statistics estimated that the prevalence overall remained high, with about one in 55 people having the virus.
“Cases remain dangerously high and we must remain vigilant to keep this virus under control,” the health ministry said. “It is essential that everyone continues to stay at home, whether they have had the vaccine or not.”
Britain has recorded more than 3.5 million infections and nearly 96,000 deaths – the world’s fifth-highest toll – while the economy has been hammered. Figures on Friday showed public debt at its highest level as a proportion of GDP since 1962, and retailers had their worst year on record.
— with files from Global News’ Rachael D’Amore and Amanda Connelly