New Variant Of Covid-19 Could Be More Deadly Than Previous Strains, Boris Johnson Says
The Prime Minister has said the mutant variant of Covid-19 first discovered in the UK is believed to be more deadly than the previously identified versions.
At a Downing Street press conference Boris Johnson said: "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 identified in London and the South East, may be associated with a higher degree of mortality."
Already known to be more transmissible than the strain that started the pandemic, and believed to be responsible for the uptick in new cases at the end of last year, testing on the version which originated in Kent now shows it may be behind the increase in fatalities reported in recent days.
This week has seen four successive days with more than 1,000 deaths of people within 28 days of testing positive. On Wednesday 1,820 deaths of people who had tested positive for Covid-19 within the last 28 days were recorded, the highest UK death toll of the pandemic so far.
Speaking alongside the PM, the UK's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance confirmed the Kent variant appears to come with "an increase in mortality as well as an increase in transmissibility".
Sir Patrick said with the original version: "If you took a man in their 60s, the average risk is that for a thousand people who got infected, roughly 10 would be expected to unfortunately die."
But with the new variant, he continued, "for a thousand people infected, roughly 13 or 14 people might be expected to die. That's the sort of change for that sort of age group."
Sir Patrick added: "But 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 of concern that this has an increase in mortality as well as an increase in transmissibility, as it appears of today."
He cautioned this is based on evidence which is "not yet strong" and there is "no real evidence of an increase in mortality" among those hospitalised by the variant.
"These data are currently uncertain and we don't have a very good estimate of the precise nature or indeed whether it is an overall increase, but it looks like it is," he added.
Sir Patrick said evidence is growing from multiple sources that vaccines will work against the UK coronavirus strain.
The chief scientific adviser told the briefing: "There's increasing evidence from laboratory studies that the variant in the UK will be susceptible to the vaccines.
"There's increasing confidence coupled with a very important clinical observation that individuals who have been infected previously and have generated antibodies appear to be equally protected against original virus and new variant.”
But Sir Patrick said the Brazilian and South African coronavirus variants are of more concern than the UK strain because there are fears they may be less susceptible to vaccines.
"We know less about how much more transmissible they are," he said.
"We are more concerned that they have certain features that they might 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."
It comes after a video appeared to show health secretary Matt Hancock admitting there is evidence the South African coronavirus variant "reduces by about 50%" vaccine efficacy.
In what is reportedly a recording of an online webinar with travel agents this week, obtained by MailOnline, he said: "There is evidence in the public domain, although we are not sure of this data so I wouldn't say this in public, but that the South African variant reduces by about 50% the vaccine efficacy."
He added: "We're testing that and we've got some of the South African variant in Porton Down, and we're testing it. We've got a clinical trial in South Africa to check that the AstraZeneca vaccine works.
"Nevertheless, 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.”
Mr Johnson also said the 38,562 Covid patients in hospital is 78% higher than in the first peak in April, but speaking next to him England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said there were signs of improvement in the number of coronavirus cases.
"There has been a turning of the corner on that and the number of people with infections has gone down,” he explained
"There are definite signs of improvement but from a very high level."
However he said it will take weeks to see significant drops in the number of people in hospital, and it will take even longer for deaths to start falling.
"The number of people who are dying has been steadily increasing,” Professor Whitty added.
"The most recent seven-day rolling average is over 1,000 deaths a day.
"This is a very high rate and it will take longer to come down and will probably go up over the next week.”
The government revealed another 1,401 people died as of today having tested positive for the virus, to add to 1,290 yesterday, the record figure of 1,820 on Wendesday and 1,610 on Tuesday, pushing the cumulative total during the pandemic close to 100,000.
But elsewhere there was brighter news on the vaccine rollout, with government data up to January 21 shows a total of 5,849,899 jabs given in the UK so far.
Of those 5,383,103 were first doses - a record rise of 409,855 on the previous day's figures, and pushing the seven-day rolling average up to 306,880.
Mr Johnson said: "Our immunisation programme continues at an unprecedented rate.
"5.4 million people across the UK have now received their first dose of the vaccine and over the last 24 hours we can report a record 400,000 vaccinations.
"In England, one in 10 of all adults have received their first dose, including 71% of over-80s and two-thirds of elderly care home residents."
He added: "I say to everyone, when that letter arrives please don't hesitate to book that appointment and get this life-saving protection because this is the best and fastest way for us all to defeat this virus and get our lives back to normal."
And government scientists believe the reproduction rate - known as the ‘r number’ - of coronavirus has fallen sharply since last week.
A Sage subgroup put the R, which represents how many people an infected person will pass it on to, at 0.8 to 1.0, down from 1.2 to 1.3 last week, suggesting the current lockdown is slowing the spread of the disease.