Coronavirus experts insist it’s “too early to say” if the new, more contagious UK variant is more deadly than the original strain despite the PM’s warning.
Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle has said that it is still not “absolutely clear” the new variant coronavirus which emerged in the UK is more deadly than the original strain.
Boris Johnson told reporters on Friday that early evidence suggests the mutant strain, first identified in London and the South East in September, “may also be associated with a higher degree of mortality”.
Some experts were surprised by the announcement, with one Government adviser questioning the timing given that the data are “not really particularly strong”.
Scientists have warned there can be no early easing of lockdown rules, and the Prime Minister appealed to people to stay home and follow the rules.
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Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle said more work was needed to determine whether the UK strain is deadlier.
“There are several investigations going on at the moment. It is not absolutely clear that that will be the case. It is too early to say,” she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“There is some evidence, but it is very early evidence.
“It is small numbers of cases and it is far too early to say this will actually happen.”
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of Sage subgroup the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said that it was still too early to be drawing “strong conclusions” about both the suggested increased mortality rates from the new Covid variant, and the gap between vaccination doses.
Referring to the news about the variant announced by Mr Johnson, he said: “I was actually quite surprised the news had been announced at a new conference.
“It seems to have gone up a little bit from about 10 people per thousand to about 13 which is quite a small rise but it’s based on a relatively small amount of data.
“I would be wanting to wait for a week or two more, monitoring a little bit more before we draw really strong conclusions about this.”
Speaking on BBC Breakfast he added: “I just worry that where we report things pre-emptively where the data are not really particularly strong.”
At a sombre No 10 news briefing on Friday, Mr Johnson said: “In addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant – the variant that was first identified in London and the south east – may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.
“It’s largely the impact of this new variant that means the NHS is under such intense pressure.”
Mr Johnson said there could be no easing of the lockdown restrictions in England until it was clear the vaccination programme was working. More than 5.4 million have been vaccinated so far.
He also said the Government could have to bring in further restrictions on travel following a warning that other new variants found in South Africa and Brazil may be more resistant to the vaccines that have been developed.
“We may need to go further to protect our borders. We don’t want to put that (efforts to control the virus) at risk by having a new variant come back in,” he said.
His warning came as England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said that while infections were falling and hospital admissions were beginning to “flatline” – the situation across the country remained “extremely precarious”.
“A very small change and it could start taking off again from an extremely high base,” he said. “If that happened again, we would be in really, really deep trouble.”
The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said early evidence suggested the new UK variant could increase mortality by almost a third in men in their 60s.
For a thousand people in that group who became infected with the old variant, roughly 10 would be expected to die – whereas with the new variant it might be 13 or 14, with similar increases in mortality rates across the age ranges.
His warning followed a briefing by scientists on the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which concluded there was a “realistic possibility” that it was associated with an increased risk of death.
Sir Patrick said the data so far was “not yet strong”.
He said: “I want to stress that there’s a lot of uncertainty around these numbers and we need more work to get a precise handle on it, but it obviously is a concern that this has an increase in mortality as well as an increase in transmissibility.”
It was already known that the new variant was up to 70 per cent more transmissible than the original – leading to a tightening of restrictions across the UK from late December onwards.
Sir Patrick said that while there was growing evidence that the vaccines would be effective against the UK variant, there was uncertainty over how well it would work against those from South Africa and Brazil.
“We know less about how much more transmissible they are. We are more concerned that they have certain features that might (make them) be less susceptible to vaccines.
“They are definitely of more concern than the one in the UK at the moment, and we need to keep looking at it and studying it very carefully.”
He stressed the evidence remained uncertain and that there was no sign the South African or Brazilian variants had any “transmission advantages” over those in the UK and so would not be expected to spread more quickly or “take over”.
Earlier, footage emerged of an online briefing by Health Secretary Matt Hancock for travel industry executives in which he suggested the South African variant could reduce the efficacy of the vaccines by about 50 per cent.
“If we vaccinated the population and then you got in a new variant that evaded the vaccine – then we’d be back to square one,” he said.
Meanwhile, the British Medical Association has reportedly written to chief medical officer for Prof Whitty calling for the gap between doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be reduced to six weeks.
The private letter, seen by the BBC, said the current plans of people waiting up to 12 weeks for a second dose – which Mr Hancock said is supported by data from an Israeli study – are “difficult to justify”.
It said: “The absence of any international support for the UK’s approach is a cause of deep concern and risks undermining public and the profession’s trust in the vaccination programme.”
Rowland Kao, professor of veterinary epidemiology and data science at the University of Edinburgh, said the latest findings suggested the UK variant was responsible for the “unexpectedly high” numbers of hospital admissions, especially around London.
“While the recent results showing declining case numbers is good news, and suggest that the variant is controllable via existing measures, these results on deaths imply that burden in hospitals will continue to be high requiring a more prolonged period of restrictions,” he said.
Professor Sir Mark Walport, a former government chief scientific adviser and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said even stricter measures may be needed if cases do not continue falling “at pace”.
“Decisions are going to have to be made on the basis of the evidence,” he told BBC news.
“If the evidence shows that the decrease in cases isn’t continuing, then clearly policymakers will have to consider much tougher measures.”
Mr Johnson said the case numbers remained “forbiddingly high” and that it would be a mistake to unlock in England if it were to lead to “another big rebound” in the disease.
On Friday, there were a further 1,401 deaths across the UK of people who had tested for Covid-19 in the previous 28 days, and there was some good news with evidence the various lockdown measures in place across the country were having an effect.
Prof Whitty warned it would be some weeks before there was a fall in the numbers of hospitalisations, while the peak of deaths “may well be still in the future”.
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A sub-group of Sage said the reproduction number, the R, for coronavirus had fallen to below one across the UK, suggesting a retreating epidemic.
The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) put the R, which represents how many people an infected person will pass the virus on to, at 0.8 to 1.0, down from 1.2 to 1.3 the previous week.
It said the number of new infections was shrinking by between 1-4 per cent every day.
However Prof Whitty said the situation across the UK remained “extremely precarious”.
“A very small change and it could start taking off again from an extremely high base,” he said.
“If that happened again, we would be in really, really deep trouble.”
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick Medical School, suggested the more serious concern was the evidence that the South African and Brazilian variants may be less susceptible to the vaccines.
“The other virus variants identified in South Africa and Brazil are more worrying as they carry more changes in the spike protein of the virus,” he said.
“It is important that we now determine the neutralising ability of antibodies against virus variants generated in response to vaccination and study the immune response in individuals infected with virus variants.”
Sir Patrick said the evidence remained uncertain and there was no sign either the South African or Brazilian variants had any “transmission advantages” over those in the UK and so would not be expected to spread more quickly or “take over”.