- The CDC is investigating reports from the UK that the B.1.1.7 mutation is deadlier than other strains.
- UK prime minister Boris Johnson said on Friday that the mutation is causing more deaths.
- A preliminary report showed that the mortality rate has increased by 30% in patients infected with the recently-discovered COVID-19 strain.
Boris Johnson stunned the world in mid-December when he announced that UK scientists had been tracking a new coronavirus mutation that had become dominant in some parts of England. The B.1.1.7 strain features genetic changes that make it more infectious than its precursors and siblings. The strain wasn’t found to cause more severe illness, and recent experiments showed that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine can neutralize it. But if it’s more infectious, the strain can increase the total number of deaths. As more people get infected, the more people there will be at risk of complications that can lead to loss of life. Since mid-December, the UK strain has been found in an increasing number of countries and US states, just as other coronavirus mutations were discovered.
On Friday, Johnson stunned the world again, claiming that the B.1.1.7 mutation is deadlier than other strains. According to a UK study, the UK mutation might kill 30% more people than other strains. But some researchers call for more data to determine whether the claim is accurate.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now investigating the matter.
“In addition to spreading more quickly, it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant that was first identified in London … may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” the UK prime minister said during a news conference.
Johnson’s remarks were based on a report from the UK’s New and Emerging Respiratory Viruses Advisory Group (NERVTAG), which found the B.1.1.7 variation would cause more deaths in a preliminary study.
“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 of the virus,” Dr. Patrick Vallance said during the news conference. “With the new variant, for a thousand people infected, roughly 13 or 14 might be expected to die.” Vallance is the UK’s chief scientific adviser.
The CDC is already investigating the matter. “The CDC has reached out to UK officials and is reviewing their new mortality data associated with variant B.1.1.7,” a CDC official told CNN Saturday.
“The data is mounting — and some of it I can’t share — that clearly supports that B.1.1.7 is causing more severe illness and increased death,” Michael Osterholm told CNN. “Already we know this variant has increased transmission, and so this is more very bad news.” Osterholm is the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of President Biden’s coronavirus transition team.
The CDC previously said in a research paper that the UK coronavirus mutation could become dominant in the US by March.
Israel is also monitoring the situation, with the country having announced new restrictions to curb the UK strain transmission. The country is running the most advanced vaccination campaign in the world so far, having inoculated 3.7 million people so far. Of those, more than 1 million people got both Pfizer/BioNTech doses, with the government aiming to vaccinate the entire eligible population (those over 16) by the end of March.
The government’s virus czar Nachman Ash said on Monday that the UK strain is now responsible for half of the cases, which are on the rise. Israel had also detected the South Africa and California mutations. Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at the Health Ministry, said that 40% of new cases in children, with doctors seeing a rise in the group aged 6-9, the children who are supposed to go back when the lockdown should end at the end of January. Nearly 5,000 cases were diagnosed on Sunday, with the positivity rate having risen to 9.3%, Israel’s second-highest level in a month.
Ash said the Ben Gurion Airport will be closed, as the mutated COVID-19 strains were brought into the country by returning visitors. The airport will stay shut for six days initially, with Alroy Preis estimating an additional few weeks of travel closures “to buy time for the vaccination campaign.” Ash wouldn’t say whether the lockdown will end next week as planned.