Is Kent Covid variant REALLY deadlier? Confusion mounts as studies differ

There was confusion tonight about how deadly the Kent coronavirus variant really is after 10 SAGE studies came to wildly different conclusions about its lethality and the World Health Organization said it still hadn't seen any convincing data.

Boris Johnson and his science chiefs tonight made the shocking claim that the strain — called B.1.1.7 — could be 30 per cent more deadly than older versions of the virus without presenting any evidence to back up the terrifying development.  

The announcement came after 10 studies submitted to SAGE overwhelmingly suggested that the strain was more lethal than past variants. But there are question marks over the findings because the estimates varied vastly and one study even found the strain was less deadly than the older version.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated the risk of death from the new variant could be 1.35 times greater, Imperial College London said it was between 1.29 and 1.36 times, Exeter University found it may be 1.91 and Public Health England said it could be as high as 1.6. But there are further questions over the reliablity of the data because the research was only based on a few hundreds deaths. 

Public Health England chief Dr Susan Hopkins cautioned people from reading too much into the findings and suggested the evidence was still murky. She added: 'There is evidence from some but not all data sources which suggests that the variant of concern which was first detected in the UK may lead to a higher risk of death than the non-variant. Evidence on this variant is still emerging and more work is underway to fully understand how it behaves.'  

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Sir Patrick Vallance told the briefing tonight that hospital data had suggested the variant could increase the risk of death for a man his 60s from 1 per cent to 1.3 per cent, but he admitted 'the evidence is not yet strong'. Adding to the confusion, Professor Chris Whitty, said he was not entirely convinced the strain was deadlier in the first place.

And thevariant has already been spotted in 60 countries, including most of continental Europe, the US, Australia, India, China and Saudi Arabia - yet none of those countries have reported a higher mortality rate from the new variant. 

Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist at the University of Bath, slammed the Government for causing confusion and panic about the variant. He tweeted: 'I really dislike the way the news about the increased lethality of B1.1.7 was leaked out and then discussed in a press briefing. Where is the data? We want to be able to scrutinise it and to understand the detail, not just the summary.'

The WHO also undermined No10, saying it had not yet seen any evidence to convince it that the Kent strain was actually more deadly than other strains. In a thinly-veiled jab at the UK Government, the body said it was more likely that the increased death rate was a result of ministers losing a grip on infections.

Dr Mike Ryan, chief of the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme, told a separate press conference today: 'There is a big difference between the lethality of a virus, how many people on average a virus kills, versus the mortality. If I have one million people infected and my lethality is 1 per cent, or two million people infected with a lethality of 1 per cent, twice as many people will die [in the second case].'

The Kent variant first emerged in the South East of England in October and quickly become the dominant strain in Britain, sparking a devastating winter wave of infections and hospital admissions which plunged the country into a third lockdown.

Studies have shown the Kent strain is between 50 and 70 per cent more infectious than the original version thanks to key mutations on its spike protein which make it easier to lock onto human cells. This gives it an evolutionary edge over other strains.

What do we know about the Kent variant? 

Name: B.1.1.7, formerly VUI-202012/01

Where did it come from? The variant was first found in Kent and can be traced back to September 2020. Scientists noticed that it was spreading in November  and it was revealed to the public in December.

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What makes it new? The variant, which is a version of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes Covid-19, has a series of mutations that change the shape of the spike protein on its outside. The main one is known as N501Y. This appears to make it better able to stick to the cells inside the body and makes it more likely to cause infection and faster to spread.

How did that happen? Viruses, particularly ones spreading so fast and in such huge numbers, mutate all the time. To reproduce they basically force living cells to copy and paste the viral genetic code, and this can contain errors that lead to slightly different

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