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The highly infectious variant of the novel coronavirus that is predominant in the United Kingdom may be up to 70 percent more deadly than previous strains, according to a report by the government’s scientific advisers.
The findings from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), published on Friday on the government’s website, underscored concerns about how mutations may change the characteristics of SARS-CoV2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – and alter the course of the pandemic.
NERVTAG’s report was based on a dozen studies that found the so-called Kent variant, named after the county where it was first identified, is likely 30 percent to 70 percent more deadly than other versions of the novel coronavirus in circulation.
Those studies compared hospitalisation and death rates among people infected with the B.1.1.7 variant and those infected with other strains.
NERVTAG includes experts from universities and public agencies across the UK.
The results of the group’s analysis are worrisome, said David Strain, a clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter Medical School and the clinical lead for COVID-19 at the Royal Devon & Exeter Hospital.
“The higher transmissibility means that people who were previously at low risk of catching COVID (particularly younger fitter females) are now catching it and ending up in hospital,″ Strain said.
“This is highlighted by the latest figures for hospitalisation that now suggest almost 50:50 male-to-female ratio compared to this being predominantly in men during the first wave.″
To date, the UK has recorded more than four million cases of COVID-19. The virus has killed more than 117,000 people nationwide, marking one of the world’s worst death tolls.
Experts have previously said the B.1.1.7 strain could be between 30 and 70 percent more infectious than other variants.
After first being detected in September, it quickly became the dominant variant in the UK.
It is thought to have been the spark for a rapid rise in the country’s COVID-19 caseload in recent months, sending the death toll spiralling and forcing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to enforce a third national lockdown on January 4.
The variant has also spread to other parts of the world, and quickly.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 83 countries have reported cases of the strain. It has been detected on every continent on Earth except for Antarctica.
Research suggests the two COVID-19 vaccines in use in the UK – developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca – offer some protection against B.1.1.7.
But the variant’s spread has nonetheless added to fears over emerging mutations of the novel coronavirus.
Concern has been heightened by two other highly infectious strains in circulation – the so-called Brazilian and South African variants, known by scientists as 20I/501Y.V2 or B.1.351 and P.1 respectively.
Those variants possess the E484K mutation, which occurs on the spike protein of the virus. The mutation is believed to help the virus evade antibodies and slip past the body’s immune defences. Scientists have warned it could weaken the effectiveness of vaccines.