Health

Significantly higher death rate reported for coronavirus variant first detected in U.K.

A highly infectious variant of COVID-19 that has spread around the world since it was first discovered in Britain late last year is between 30 per cent and 100 per cent more deadly than previous dominant variants, researchers said on Wednesday.

B117 variant is between 30 and 100% more deadly than previous dominant variants, researchers say

Dr. Gabriele Zanolini, director of the main COVID-19 ward at Mellino Mellini hospital, tends to a patient in Chiari, northern Italy, on Monday. The 160-bed hospital in the Po River Valley town of Chiari has no more beds for patients stricken with the highly contagious variant of COVID-19 first identified in the U.K. (Luca Bruno/The Associated Press)

A highly infectious variant of the novel coronavirus that has spread around the world since it was first discovered in Britain late last year is between 30 per cent and 100 per cent more deadly than previous dominant variants, researchers said on Wednesday.

In a study that compared death rates among people in Britain infected with the new SARS-CoV-2 variant — known as B117 — against those infected with other variants of the COVID-19-causing virus, scientists said the new variant's mortality rate was "significantly higher."

The B117 variant was first detected in Britain in September 2020, and has since also been found in more than 100 other countries.

It has 23 mutations in its genetic code — a relatively high number — and some of them have made it spread far more easily. Scientists say it is about 40 per cent to 70 per cent more transmissible than previous dominant variants that were circulating.

"In this comparatively low-risk group, this represents an increase in deaths from 2.5 to 4.1 per 1,000 detected cases," the researchers wrote.

'A threat that should be taken seriously'

In the U.K. study, published in the British Medical Journal on Wednesday, infection with the new variant led to 227 deaths in a sample of 54,906 COVID-19 patients, compared with 141 among the same number of patients infected with other variants.

"Coupled with its ability to spread rapidly, this makes B117 a threat that should be taken seriously," said Robert Challen, a researcher at Exeter University who co-led the study.

Independent experts said this study's findings add to previous preliminary evidence linking infection with the B117 virus variant with an increased risk of dying from COVID-19.

Initial findings from the study were presented to the U.K. government earlier this year, along with other research, by experts on its New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, or NERVTAG, panel.

Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick University, said the precise mechanisms behind the higher death rate of the B117 variant were still not clear, but "could be related to higher levels of virus replication as well as increased transmissibility." 

He warned that the variant was likely fuelling a recent surge in infections across Europe.

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