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The UK coronavirus mutation might be even deadlier than we thought

Published Mar 14th, 2021 9:02AM EDT
Coronavirus Death Risk
Image: Microgen/Adobe

Late last year, UK health and government officials announced the emergence of a new coronavirus mutation that became dominant in the country. Rather than easing restrictions, the UK instituted a tighter lockdown during the holidays. Even so, the UK government reported record numbers of cases in early January, despite restrictions.

In the weeks that followed, we learned that the current vaccines could neutralize the B.1.1.7 strain discovered in England, and COVID-19 survivors weren’t likely to be reinfected. More recent studies have shown that the current vaccines remain highly effective against the mutant. UK’s own coronavirus statistics prove that the vaccines work as intended.

But there’s terrible news about B.1.1.7 as well. A preliminary study showed a few weeks ago that the UK mutation is around 35% deadlier than other variants. A brand new study offers an even higher estimate. The B.1.1.7 strain is 64% more lethal than previous COVID-19 strains, according to this new study.

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The new findings come from the University of Exeter, which published its research in BMJ, via France 24.

The scientists compared data for nearly 55,000 pairs of participants who tested positive in the community between October and January. The volunteers were matched on various factors, including age, sex, and ethnicity. The researchers followed the volunteers for 28 days after infection to measure the death rate.

The paper indicates that people infected with B.1.1.7 are 64% more likely to die. Put differently, that’s an increase in deaths from 2.5 to 4.1 in every 1,000 detected cases.

Community testing tends to pick up more low-risk cases, but if the findings can be generalized to other populations, the researchers say the mutant has the potential to cause substantial additional mortality compared with previously circulating variants.”

“Healthcare capacity planning and national and international control policies are all impacted by this finding, with increased mortality lending weight to the argument that further coordinated and stringent measures are justified to reduce deaths from SARS-CoV-2,” they wrote.

The UK mutation has spread all over the globe since its detection. The CDC warned several weeks ago that the UK mutation could become dominant by March. Health officials cautioned that mutants like B.1.1.7 could fuel another wave of infection. The CDC has said that the number of daily cases has plateaued around 60,000 to 70,000 after dropping for weeks. The agency warned against lifting restrictions too early after some states ended their mask mandates.

Aside from the UK mutation, at least two other worrying variants have been discovered in the past few months. Unlike the UK mutation, the South African and Brazilian versions can reinfect survivors and can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines. However, it’s B.1.1.7 that appears to be spreading more rapidly than other versions, and vaccines are highly effective against it. A new Pfizer/BioNTech study from Israel revealed this week that the vaccine is highly effective, preventing severe illness and deaths. The drug can also prevent asymptomatic infection. The findings were all the more important as 80% of positive cases in the study were infected with the UK strain.

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Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he closely follows the events in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises. Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.