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UK Warns New Virus Strain May Be Deadlier Too

With the world recording its deadliest week yet in the pandemic, the United Kingdom on Friday added to the global misery by announcing that a new strain of the coronavirus appears to not just be more contagious, but also more deadly.

(CN) — With the world recording its deadliest week yet in the pandemic, the United Kingdom on Friday added to the global misery by announcing that a new strain of the coronavirus appears to not just be more contagious, but also more deadly.

Shortly before Christmas, the U.K. startled the world by reporting that a new strain it had identified in southeastern England was more contagious and therefore spreading at alarming rates. Since then, the U.K. has seen a staggering increase in infections and deaths and travel to and from the British Isles has been greatly restricted.

Until now, though, it wasn't believed this new variant and others detected in South Africa and Brazil are more deadly. On Friday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pierced that hope.

“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 may be associated with a higher degree of mortality,” Johnson said during a news briefing in London.

Patrick Vallance, the U.K.'s chief scientific adviser, said the variant – classified as B.1.1.7 – may be 30% more deadly.

As an example, he said the new variant may kill 13 or 14 out of 1,000 men in their 60s who get infected, whereas the original variant found in the U.K. was expected to kill 10 men in their 60s.

“So that is the sort of change for that sort of age group,” Vallance said at the news briefing. He said similar relative increases in the disease's seriousness and mortality may be taking place across age groups. He added, though, that “there is a lot of uncertainty around these numbers.”

Although the new variant may be spreading faster and be deadlier, Johnson and Vallance said vaccines being deployed in the U.K. appear to be effective against it. The U.K. has approved vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Oxford-AstraZeneca. It has not started using the Moderna jab.

The U.K. is well ahead of others in the race to inoculate its population with about 5.4 million Brits already vaccinated with a first dose, including about 71% of those who are over 80 years old. That's about one out of every 10 adults.

“All current evidence continues to show that both the vaccines we're currently using remain effective both against the old variant and this new variant,” Johnson said.

But Vallance warned scientists are concerned about the possibility vaccines may be less efficient at stopping two separate variants identified in Brazil and South Africa.

“We know less about how much more transmissible they are, we are more concerned that they have certain features which means they might be less susceptible to vaccines,” he said.

Experts with the World Health Organization said they were unfamiliar with the U.K.'s new data suggesting the B.1.1.7 variant is more deadly.

A woman wearing a face mask to curb the spread of coronavirus pushes a child in a buggy past the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral, in the City of London financial district of London, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021, during England's third national lockdown since the coronavirus outbreak began. The U.K. is under an indefinite national lockdown to curb the spread of the new variant, with nonessential shops, gyms and hairdressers closed, most people working from home and schools largely offering remote learning. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

“We don't have that full information yet,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on the pandemic, during a news briefing at the global health agency's Geneva headquarters on Friday. The U.K. news briefing took place at the same time as the WHO's.

“All mutations are somewhat worrisome in the sense that we need to evaluate them properly,” she said. Until now, the WHO has said the virus appears to be mutating at a relatively slow rate, which has given its experts reason to hope vaccines will work against it. But its experts have also warned that the virus will likely become endemic.

Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies, said that regardless of whether new variants are more contagious or more virulent, countries need to do more to get the virus under control.

“We're not seeing so far,” he said, “that the disease is more lethal. What we're seeing is that if you infect more people, more people will get very sick and if more people get very sick, more people will die.”

Dr. Kate O’Brien, the head of the WHO’s program for immunization, vaccines and biologicals, said it remains unclear whether vaccines now in existence may be less effective at fighting off new variants.

“This is really evolving information,” she said. “It is too early at this point to really have clear information on that.”

WHO experts also warn that more strains are likely to come into existence if the virus is allowed to spread around the world at such high rates.

In the past week, the world recorded its deadliest stretch yet when 95,404 deaths were linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. On Wednesday, 17,819 deaths globally were reported, the deadliest single-day toll yet since the pandemic started a year ago in Wuhan, an industrial city in central China. Globally, the death toll has surpassed 2 million.

New infections also remain extremely high with more than 600,000 people a day diagnosed with the virus around the world. However, the number of new infections is decreasing, an indication that widespread lockdowns and other restrictions in Europe and the Americas, the two hardest-hit regions in the world by far, are working.

Still, agonizing months lay ahead and there is a real possibility that the new variants will spread around the globe and accelerate infections and deaths.

The U.K. is a prime example of how dangerous the new virus strains can be. For weeks, it has struggled to contain its outbreak and its hospitals are now under huge stress. On Friday, the U.K. reported 1,401 new deaths, by far the most in Europe. It also recorded about 40,260 new infections, a huge number though in keeping with a steady decline since a peak of more than 68,000 on Jan. 8.

“It's largely the impact of this new variant that means the NHS is under such intense pressure,” Johnson said, referring to National Health Service, Britain's public health care system.

On Friday, there were 38,562 Covid-19 patients in Britain's hospitals, Johnson said. He said that was 78% higher than the number of hospitalizations in the first wave of the pandemic in April.

“It's more important than ever that we all remain vigilant in following the rules, and that we stay at home, protect the NHS and thereby save lives,” Johnson said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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