The Kent coronavirus variant is not more deadly than the original strain, a PHE study has found
The Kent coronavirus variant is not more deadly than the original strain, an official study has found.
Public Health England’s analysis of more than 5,500 Covid patients in the second wave found there was ‘no difference’ in mortality rates between the strains in the month after getting infected.
However, the agency discovered people who caught the Kent B.1.1.7 variant were a third more likely to need hospital treatment than those infected with the older version, though the risk remained tiny for the majority of people.
Among the researchers behind the study were ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson, the SAGE scientist whose gloomy forecasts of the first wave plunged the country into its first shutdown, and Dr Susan Hopkins, one of PHE’s chief epidemiologists.
The finding comes just months after No10 used a dramatic press conference to warn the public the Kent variant was at least 30 per cent deadlier.
Ministers claimed their shock announcement in January was justified because eight independent studies submitted to SAGE had pointed to increased lethality.
But the Government was accused of jumping the gun before there was hard proof and scaremongering the public into complying with the third lockdown.
It is hard to compare death rates between the first and second waves, to measure the impact of the different variants, because many people weren’t tested in the first wave, meaning the ratio of infections to deaths is wrong.
Independent scientists told MailOnline today the latest PHE study was an ‘outlier’ and pointed out that several other recent studies had concluded B.1.1.7 was more deadly.
Dr Simon Clarke, cellular microbiologist at Reading University, said: ‘As things stand, this paper is in the minority, it’s an outlier.’
He also questioned the finding that the variant increases hospital risk but not mortality, adding: ‘I don’t see how that could make sense.’
A SAGE paper published in January cited three studies of the Kent strain: A London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study (left) based on 2,583 deaths that said the hazard of death within 28 days of test for the mutant strain compared with non-mutant strains was 35% times higher An Imperial College London study (centre) of the Case Fatality Rate of the new mutant strain that found the risk of death was 36% times higher A University of Exeter study (right) that suggested the risk of death could be 91% higher. Both the Exeter and the Imperial studies were based on just 8% of deaths during the study period
The PHE study, which is still to be published, looked at more than 5,500 people in England who tested positive for the virus between October and December last year.
About half were infected with the original strain and the others had B.1.1.7.
A total of 131 needed hospital treatment and 76 died within 28 days of their test.
What do we know about the Kent variant?
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.
What makes it new? The variant 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 versions of the virus. Often these mutations make no difference but, if they make the virus stronger, they can stick around for further generations and become the norm.
What can we do about it? Nothing much. People who catch the virus won’t know which type they have, and it will still cause the same symptoms and illness. Officials can try to contain it by locking down the areas where it is most prevalent, but if it is stronger than other versions of the virus it will eventually spread everywhere and become dominant as long as people continue to travel.
Will our vaccines still work? Yes, every study into the jabs’ effects on the strain shows they are highly effective.
Initially, the researchers said there was no evidence of a link between the Kent strain and an increased likelihood of needing hospital care.
But after adjusting for age, sex, ethnicity, underlying health conditions and other Covid risk factors, they found a 34 per cent heightened risk.
Writing in the study, the researchers said: ‘We observed an increased risk in hospitalisation associated with the variant compared to wild-type cases.
‘However, no significant difference in the risk of mortality was observed.’
Dr Clarke said it wasn’t immediately clear how the Kent variant could increase a person’s chance of being admitted to hospital but not of killing them.
He told MailOnline: ‘I don’t see how that could happen, unless it [the Kent strain] is putting people into hospital with a milder infection.
‘It’s not clear how the virus could be serious enough to put you in hospital but not serious enough to kill you.
‘You could argue that it gives you a disease that responds better to treatment once you’re in hospital, but I haven’t seen any data for that.’
Dr Clarke warned the results did not give him confidence that B.1.1.7 was not more lethal than the original Covid, highlighting that several studies had found the opposite.
His comments were echoed by Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia.
He told MailOnline: ‘There have been other studies that have concluded otherwise…
‘To me the big weakness in this new paper is that it does not really discuss its findings in relation to earlier studies and why it has different conclusions.
‘So I do not think this is definitive. We need to see all the data and the different studies.’
It comes after a major study earlier claimed the Kent variant was 64 per cent more lethal than earlier versions of the virus.
The research, carried out by academics at the universities of Exeter, Bristol, Warwick and Lancaster, was published in the British Medical Journal. It looked at data from around 55,000 Britons.
Boris Johnson, Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty told a Downing Street press conference in January that early data suggested the variant could increase the risk of death for a man his 60s from 1 per cent to 1.3 per cent.
But confusion mounted following the claims, with a senior Public Health England boss playing down the fears and insisted it was not ‘absolutely clear’ if it was any deadlier.
SAGE then published the papers they used to make their estimate, which showed estimates of the death risk varied wildly.
The Kent variant dates back to September 2020, and was responsible for most of the second wave, while older variants from Wuhan and Spain caused the first wave.