Researchers in Britain fear the pandemic is heading in the wrong direction and say studies clearly show the U.K. variant of the virus is both more contagious and more deadly.
“It’s a really serious turn for the worse, unfortunately,” said John Edmunds, a professor of mathematical modelling of infectious diseases at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). “This virus is very serious and needs to be taken very seriously.”
Dr. Edmunds made the comments during a news briefing Monday to address questions about a recent study that showed the U.K. variant, known as B.1.1.7, is as much as 30 per cent deadlier.
He and two other scientists involved in the study added, though, that they still believe the vaccines currently in widespread use – by Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca and Moderna — will be effective against the variant. On Monday Moderna confirmed that testing showed its vaccine provided protection against both B.1.1.7 and a South African variant.
Findings from the mortality study were made public Friday by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser. Sir Patrick cautioned that the evidence about death rates was not strong and that the data had come from a “series of different bits of information.”
But on Monday Dr. Edmunds and the other two scientists said the evidence was solid and that other researchers had come to similar conclusions. The 30-per-cent finding “is statistically significant,” Dr. Edmunds said. “It’s not as if this result has just sort of come up overnight. We’ve been working for weeks on it … There is quite a lot of evidence, and the effect is not small.”
The B.1.1.7 variant has spread throughout Britain and to several other countries, including Canada. Other studies have found it is as much as 70 per cent more contagious, and that appears to be borne out in Britain, where infections have surged to levels not seen since the start of the pandemic. Despite a nationwide lockdown since Boxing Day, the number of new daily cases has remained above 30,000 most days this month, and hospital admissions have hit record highs. Daily mortality figures have also been significantly higher.
Graham Medley, another professor of infectious disease modelling at LSHTM, said there was little doubt the B.1.1.7 variant was more deadly – the only question was by how much. “One of the possibilities was that this new variant would cause less mortality, it would be less virulent. And I think we can be absolutely sure that that’s not the case,” he said. “Whether there is a significant increase in mortality I think is still [unclear]. The evidence we have is very solid but it still could be changed with different data sets. But it’s certainly not the case that this is a more benign virus.”
Mr. Johnson indicated Monday that the government would not consider easing lockdown restrictions until the middle of February at the earliest. There have been signs the number of new cases has been decreasing in recent days along with hospital admissions.
“Daily we’re looking at the data and trying to work out when we’re going to be able to lift restrictions,” Mr. Johnson told reporters. “Schools obviously will be a priority, but I don’t think anybody would want to see the restrictions lifted so quickly while the rate of infection is still very high, so as to lead to another great spread of infection.”
Britain has embarked on a massive vaccination campaign in an effort to get ahead of the pandemic. So far more than 6.5 million people have been inoculated, and the daily number topped 400,000 over the weekend – one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. The government is confident it is on track to inoculate everyone over the age of 70 by Feb. 15 – roughly 15 million people. Other age groups will follow until every adult in the country has been vaccinated by the end of June.
This week the government is opening 32 new mass vaccination centres, bringing the total to 49. They include the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, made famous as a set of the TV series Peaky Blinders.
Moderna said Monday it looked at blood samples from eight people who had received two doses of its vaccine. The findings showed it worked in all cases but wasn’t quite as effective against the South African variant, which could mean immunity will wane more quickly. The company said it’s working on a new form of the vaccine that could be used as a booster.
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